Monday, January 31, 2011

OTEC Likely To Have Its Moment in ‘Big Wind’ Hearings

Public meetings important to Hawaii’s energy future will be held this week in Maui and Honolulu counties to explain the “Big Wind” concept and hear what residents of Oahu, Maui, Lanai and Molokai think about it.

The State Energy Office is supporting a wind energy plan to build two 200-megawatt wind farms, one each on Molokai and Lanai, and undersea cables to transit electrical energy to Oahu and within Maui County (as shown in the above diagram that accompanies today’s story on the meetings in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser).

The State sees Big Wind as an important component of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative and its goal of relying on renewable energy for 40 percent of Hawaii’s power needs by 2030. But Big Wind’s eventual success is by no means certain.

The Friends of Lanai group objects to the impact Castle & Cooke’s proposed 170-turbine wind farm would have on the island’s open space, which the Friends say would forever be altered. Molokai residents have repeatedly resisted efforts to change the nature of the “most Hawaiian island.”

The ‘Capacity Factor’ Factor

Life of the Land, which describes itself as “a Hawaii-based Environmental and Community Action Group,” believes ocean thermal energy conversion is a better option than Big Wind. LOL’s executive director says OTEC would cost less than Big Wind’s estimated $3 billion price tag.

Few media stories here mention “capacity factor” in their energy coverage, so we’ll mention it here in the hope reporters will soon acquaint themselves with the concept.

An argument can and undoubtedly will be made at this week’s hearings that on average, wind farms actually deliver only about 25 percent of their installed generation capacity to the grid due to wind variability, from full-on gale strength to dead calm.

Big Wind’s capacity factor also is likely to be around 25 percent, so on average, the Lanai and Molokai wind farms would export around 100 megawatts of electrical energy at a cost of $3 billion.

Life of the Land and many others (including this blog) believe Hawaii’s energy conversation must eventually take stock of the significant disparity between intermittent energy sources, such as Big Wind, and baseload sources like geothermal energy today and OTEC tomorrow.

Baseload plants have capacity factors approaching 100 percent. They operate around the clock and only reduce their output for planned maintenance and relatively rare unplanned outages.

Bigger Bang for the Buck?

In broad terms, Big Wind would deliver 100 megawatts of power at a cost of $3 billion. The question needs asking: How much power could be produced at the same cost by building more geothermal plants on the Big Island and/or finally taking the OTEC leap to develop the first and subsequent ocean thermal plants?

We’ve already suggested here that maybe Hawaii has to make a choice between technologies based on what we can afford. Others discount the need for such a choice and believe all energy sources must be up for discussion.

They undoubtedly have a point – that at no step along the path to energy independence can Hawaii afford to choose between green technologies. If Hawaii is to actually end all fossil fuel use within a few decades, we’ll have to tap all existing sources and develop new ones.

We don’t believe we can reach the goals set by HCEI and President Obama in his recent State of the Union speech with existing on-line technologies. New ones like OTEC, wave energy and hydrogen power and others will be required.

This week’s meetings will afford the opportunity to go beyond Big Wind to other big ideas – including, we anticipate, OTEC.

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