Thursday, June 17, 2010

More ‘Big Wind’ Developments, plus Solar and OTEC

Following up on our caution last week about counting Molokai’s wind farm eggs too early, now comes word in the Molokai Dispatch of a temporary setback to locating the 200 megawatts of wind capacity on the island.

Deep in the story is this observation by the reporter: “A quick drive around the island reveals numerous hand-painted signs speaking out against wind development.” Similar postings signaled community opposition to a Laau Point luxury home development, which was never built.

We can’t know at this early date the extent of community opposition to wind. We’re just saying it could be significant, so be ready.

Moving On….

Renewable energy meetings are happening in Honolulu this weekend, beginning with NOAA’s public information session on its rulemaking and regulation intentions for ocean thermal energy conversion this afternoon at the East-West Center.

And beginning Sunday, 18,000 attendees are expected at the IEEE photovoltaic Specialists Conference in the Hawaii Convention Center. The first Eastern Pacific tropical disturbances of the season will still be too far distant if they head this way, so sunny days are expected all next week. Let’s hope the forecast for sun power policy is the same.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hawaii Energy Pieces Seem To Be Coming Together, but Let’s Forget All That Talk about ‘Cheap’ Wind Power

You can hardly pick up a newspaper (the only one we have, now that the Advertiser is gone) without reading positive economic news for Hawaii, and the same can almost be said about green energy initiatives here.

Yesterday’s significant news was the awarding of a contract to a Los-Angeles company to study the route and conduct impact studies of a future undersea cable linking the islands of Oahu, Molokai and Lanai. The idea is to provide an energy export channel – the cable – from two future 200-megawatt windfarms, one each on Lanai and Molokai, to Oahu’s population and commercial base.

It’s far from a sure thing. Despite optimism about the cable and wind projects, numerous issues remain to be carefully assessed. Local opposition to truly massive wind energy projects could be significant on Lanai, which has become a get-away-from-it-all destination for wealthy mainlanders. A venture fund founder with a home on Lanai was quoted last year as saying, “I am not going to live on an island that’s the biggest wind farm in the Pacific.” Long-time local residents are no less resistant.

Molokai residents are known for their determined opposition to anything that would transform the nature of their island. They’ve successfully blocked port calls by cruise ships and high-end home development projects, placing environmental and cultural protection ahead of potential economic benefits.

Too Cheap for Meters?

The impacts study itself will cost $2.9 million in federal stimulus funds, and the cable’s cost is estimated today at $1 billion, which will be covered over time by Oahu’s electric customers. Big Wind is seen as a key element in Hawaii’s effort to replace fossil fuel for electrical generation (currently around 78%) with renewable energy, and there’s considerable enthusiasm for Big Wind.

An Associated Press story paraphrased a state official as saying customers will benefit in the long run from “cheap wind power instead of relying on potentially expensive oil.” But let’s just get used to not calling Big Wind “cheap” power. That’s the kind of talk used by nuclear energy proponents in the 1950s. Nuke power would be so cheap, they said, as to eliminate the need for electric meters. Compared to what future power prices could rise to if Hawaii continued its dependence on imported oil, wind power presumably would be less expensive, but it won’t be cheap.

Who’s on First?

We also wonder about what the impact will be on other potential renewable resources after 400 MW of wind power are locked in and plugged into Oahu's grid with a billion-dollar cable. NOAA is gearing up to regulate and promulgate rules for the first ocean thermal energy conversion demonstration projects (see Honolulu meeting notice), and it’s looking more certain than ever that Hawaii will see a pilot plant this decade. We even heard last week at the State-sponsored Clean Energy Day that the next US Navy budget will have $250 million in it for OTEC R & D.

Ocean energy is another decade or more away from making significant contributions here, but it’s worth asking now what the dynamic would be if a baseload energy source like OTEC were ready for development after an intermittent source like Big Wind already is online.

Both OTEC and Big Wind have a long arduous path before they’re in place, so let’s just leave it like this: We’d be more comfortable with the cable/Big Wind project if there were an equal commitment and push behind building Hawaii’s first ocean thermal conversion plant. In light of the significant issues Big Wind faces, let’s be sure OTEC gets its due in the years ahead. Hawaii will need a lot of energy eggs in its basket to get off oil.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Could This Be the Long-Delayed ‘Summer of OTEC’?

Maybe this is just the first of many ocean thermal energy summers after decades and generations even of OTEC’s long winter.

The National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration’s OTEC open house and information session next week is one sign that the climate maybe changing for this highly anticipated but always-delayed ocean technology.

Another indicator – the June issue of Oceanography, the official magazine of the Oceanography Society. It’s a special issue on Marine Renewable Energy, and among its offerings are lengthy pieces on the potential and obstacles to capturing solar energy in the oceans. This sentence jumps out:

“The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimate that the total combined potential for all ocean renewables in the United States exceeds national electric energy use.”

Realistically, smaller amounts are likely to be extracted by ocean energies, but even that could be considerable. The article continues:

“….ocean energy could ultimately provide at least 10% of the electric supply of the United States. In coastal areas, where these resources are plentiful, the indigenous sources may, on a regional basis, represent a much larger fraction of the local energy supply and may indeed by the best long-term energy option.”

It’s not unrealistic to think the majority of Hawaii’s electric energy needs could be obtained within a generation by exploiting OTEC and other ocean technologies. Eventually, OTEC could electrify the entire state while accommodating contributions from the other renewable technologies.

In other words, clean energy would power the entire state, including vehicles and eventually aircraft. That’s the vision that’s driving numerous clean-energy initiatives in Hawaii, the world’s most geographically isolated and one of its most oil-dependent societies.

The June issue of Oceanography from its first article to the last is recommended reading, and anyone truly motivated to learn more about OTEC might well attend NOAA’s open house in the East-West Center on June 17. It's free.