Monday, January 24, 2011

Big Wind vs Big Ocean: Should Hawaii Make a Choice?

In a perfect world, every possible renewable energy technology would be available and used to the maximum extent practicable here. But even in our Hawaiian paradise, there are limits.

The Japanese plan to capture solar power in earth orbit and microwave it to ground stations. Bingo – an inexhaustible energy supply. But then there’s that word “practicable.”

Even if the technology were available today, would it pencil out? Would it be worth a massive infrastructure investment in Hawaii to capture solar energy in space and microwave it to islands that already have an abundant supply of solar energy?

Hawaii is ideally situated to tap into terrestrial solar energy – in the strong and steady winds that blow across the islands, in the tropical ocean that surrounds them and in the heat below the surface of some islands in the form of geothermal energy. Most would agree that using those sources is preferable than a much more expensive space-based solar system.

Asking THE Question

Let’s continue with another potential choice – between Big Wind, which is what they’re calling the plan to build two 200-megawatt windfarms on Lanai and Molokai, and what we’ll call Big Ocean, the potential to harvest even more energy from ocean thermal energy conversion. Should Hawaii build one and not the other?

Some are already asking questions and expressing opinions about Big Wind. A group called Friends of Lanai had a commentary at the online journalism site Civil Beat today. In short, the Friends don’t want 170 wind turbines, each over 400 feet tall, erected on their island to supply Oahu with electricity via undersea cables. The sacrifice is too great, they say.

They’re concerned about the cost to build the windfarms on the two islands and to construct and lay cables (including redundancy cables) between the islands and Oahu. A billion here, a billion there, and before you know it, you have a $3 billion price tag for Big Wind that could grow larger.

Is Big Ocean Competitive?

Some argue that much more power could be generated at less cost using OTEC plants floating free or moored in deep water a few miles off the islands, with much shorter and shallower cables connected to power grids.

Advocates (including Hawaii Energy Options for the past three years) argue that OTEC’s environmental impact to generate a like amount of electrical power as wind is much less than hundreds of towering structures on land.

But their home-run argument is that OTEC is baseload power, capable of operating continuously without regard to variables in wind strength and sunshine. To advocates, the argument comes down to baseload OTEC vs intermittent wind and solar farms, with baseload far superior.

Build Now, or Later?

But then there’s that other key factor. Wind power is proven technology after decades of trial and error, including right here on Oahu’s North Shore. Hawaiian Electric Industries built early generations of wind turbines in the hills near Kahuku, and those failures helped lead to successes in the current generation of turbines.

OTEC is still on the drawing boards after being touted as the energy game changer for decades, without one commercial-sized plant in service anywhere in the world. At first glance, there’s no competition; wind wins.

But Hawaii’s energy future reasonably shouldn’t be based on first glances. The technology we choose will be expensive – we’ll all pay for it one way or the other in our electric bills – and will be with us for generations.

Do we embrace Big Wind now, with its environmental impacts, intermittency and big cable costs, or do we hold off to develop the will and the investors to build that first OTEC plant to prove or disprove its worth, once and for all?

Some argue we can’t delay Big Wind if the state is to meet its Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative green energy goals. Big Ocean advocates say it would be wrong to rush to Big Wind and waste the opportunity to perfect a technology that could revolutionize energy production in the 21st century.

Big Wind vs Big Ocean. Stated that way, it does look like a competition of technologies. With only so much ability to financially support the green energy transformation of Hawaii, perhaps it should in fact come down to one or the other.


Anonymous said...

AS I understand it, in order to obtain large commercial scale megawats from an OTEC plant, it requires the movement of massive amounts of water through the system. I'm not sure it wouldn't have a substantial negative impact on our ocean environmnet close to shore.

Suggest first commercial plant be built in one of the small Pacific Island countries that desperately need relief from high oil prices and doesn't have onerous environmental regulations. KW

Doug Carlson said...

Appreciate your comment, Anonymous. It's true that environmental impacts of moving water, dumping water, etc., need to be addressed. OTEC developers say they have that handled and won't be dumping "close" to shore.

But I can't agree that Hawaii's and America's investment to bring OTEC into its own should be directed to another country. Hawaii has the highest gas and electricity prices in the nation, and those conditions are going to worsen.

We're at a crossroads in either making massive customer-supported investments in Big Wind or an alternative -- Big Ocean, as I'm suggesting, or maybe even Big Earth with geothermal energy. Circumstances seemingly add up to getting on with it, but that could be the wrong thing to do as we approach this intersection.

Senator Mike Gabbard said...

Aloha Doug,

As always, you provide some provocative food for thought. I hope this conversation will continue in earnest at the Legislature this session. Mahalo.

Senator Mike Gabbard
Chair, Energy/Environment Committee

Doug Carlson said...

Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment, Senator Gabbard. It's great to have the Chair of the Senate Energy/Environment Committee dropping in on Hawaii Energy Options.

Please keep your eyes open for any and all opportunities to advance OTEC, the heart of Big Ocean, Hawaii's greatest energy asset.

Doug Carlson said...

I posted a link to this post at my Facebook page, and someone heavily involved in the renewable energy scene here asked, "Why choose?" Here what I wrote in response:

"I think a choice may be in order because Big Wind, Big Ocean and Big Earth (geothermal) all would be multi-billion dollar projects. Right now, Big Wind is charging ahead with little public examination except for what the Friends of Lanai put out there. If Big Wind becomes a fact, Big Ocean and/or Big Earth might be locked out because just maybe a 1.2 million population base can't handle two Bigs, let alone three. Big Wind is an intermittent technology that's praying for major advances in battery technology so there's a backup when the wind doesn't blow. As you know, the other two Bigs are baseload technologies. Will we lock in an intermittent source and thereby prevent the baseloads from coming aboard? Let's have a discussion on whether we can do two or three of these or whether we have to choose only one because of the cost, which we'll all pay for in our electric bills."

Doug Carlson said...
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Doug Carlson said...
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Steveo said...

I think our choices ought to be wider than just 2. Indeed OTEC is attractive as a "perpetual and continuous energy machine", however with a Master in ME from U Mich, credentials as a CEM, experienced in energy analysis, DOE certified pumping specialist, and having toured the Kona plant I have to say unless you have access nearby to quite cold water, and a large cooling demand, and an easy way to distribute the piping, well then, OTEC will not nearly be the best choice. Big Wind, big cables, big business, big lack of security --- easy to attack that cable and jeopardize Hawaii. No simple answers, but solar is a no brainer, and the big question is going to be getting an old school utility to modernize their grid whilst integrating some type of energy storage, be it flywheels, battery farms, and possibly supplemntal quick reacting SNG generators.

joei said...

This is an interesting article. I once heard of OTEC when I was in high school a few years back and always found it an interesting idea. Recently I had to pick a topic for a presentation for my speech class at LCC and the only thing I could think of was something on OTEC. Thanks for the post it is helpful to my research and I am very happy that OTEC is still being fought for as an option for Hawaii's future.