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.

1 comment:

Hannah in Manoa said...

This is what happens when you let entrepreneurs from the mainland try to dictate Hawaii's energy policy. I love renewables, but this will be Superferry again.

Molokai'i will rebel, because although they might support renewable energy development to meet their own need, they don't want to be O'ahu's energy colony. Who would?

Neil Abercrombie has proposed a plan for organizing the brightest energy experts in Hawai'i to develop renewables and conservation for the benefit of the people, in an open and democratic manner. If the proposed "Hawaii Energy Authority" is a cooperative, as I have suggested to Neil, we will connect the islands to be more interdependent, while each island becomes independent from petroleum and imported energy overall.