Thursday, February 10, 2011

Confluence of Events: MECO Needs 50 MW of New Firm Renewable Energy, NOAA Launches New OTEC Website

Diagram accompanying today's NOAA website launch. 
Once upon a time, a seminar leader drilled a phrase into his attendees’ heads: The Universe makes no mistakes, he’d say over and over, while leaving it to his eager subjects to figure out what that meant in their personal lives.

We’re thinking the proximity of two events that happened apparently independent of one another this week was no mistake.

Tuesday press release: Maui Electric seeks to add 50 megawatts of firm renewable power

Thursday press release: NOAA Launches Website on Emerging Marine Renewable Energy

Coincidence? Not if you believe the Universe makes no mistakes.

MECO’s announcement that it wants a good-sized chunk (for Maui) of firm green power is likely to incentivize ocean thermal energy conversion developers to kick into overdrive. They’ve been saying it for generations: OTEC is Hawaii’s best long-term hope to end its dependence on imported fuel and  Get Off Oil.

They have the technology figured out. The big hurdle now is funding, and they’re undoubtedly working feverishly on it.

NOAA’s Role

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the licensing authority for OTEC facilities. A NOAA team visited Hawaii in November 2009 on something of a “scouting trip” to bring members up to speed on what’s happening with OTEC in the Aloha State.

Team leader Kerry Kehoe said then, “If I were a Las Vegas odds maker, I’d say the odds are better than 50 percent that the first OTEC pilot plant will be built in Hawaii – and the first commercial plant, too.

We followed up our post on Kehoe’s visit with a hope that NOAA wouldn’t regulate OTEC to death, as some have feared. Dr. Luis Vega, director of the National Marine Renewable Energy Center at the University of Hawaii and indefatigable OTEC enthusiast, countered that concern a few weeks later.

We trust NOAA’s intentions mirror those of OTEC developers – to put this technology to work as quickly as possible while paying due regard to environmental concerns that must be addressed as OTEC approaches is long-predicted contribution to replacing fossil fuel for the generation of electricity. The launch of NOAA's new OTEC website is an encouraging step.

Back to Maui

When finally operated at commercial scale, OTEC is expected to be a firm dispatchable power source. That’s what MECO requires, and although Maui is on well on the way to becoming a showcase for wind energy in the state, that technology is not yet capable of 24/7 support of the electric grid. Maybe that’ll happen with a revolution in battery storage technology, but it’s not here yet. (2/12 UPDATE: A new phase of the Kaheawa wind farm on Maui will have a 10-MW battery backup system, so we may have to modify our view about that technology.)

So what are MECO’s options? Observers doubt there’s enough hydro-electric potential to meet the utility’s 50-MW need. That might leave only biofuel with the potential to satisfy MECO’s future RFP.

But that source isn’t without potential problems either. Consider a worst-case scenario involving drought, crop failure, supply chain interruption or any other circumstance that would threaten the biofuel supply. And biofuel isn’t without its environmental impacts.

Beyond interruptions, many believe biofuel is best reserved for the transportation sector. Airlines are going to need a substitute for oil-based fuel, and biofuel is a leading candidate.

All of this amounts to lots of questions and few answers as of now, but we take comfort in knowing “the Universe makes no mistakes.”

That phrase is not an invitation to sit back and let the Universe take over. It’s an invitation to take action and make the future your own.

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