Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Are Hawaii’s Parameters To Get Off Oil? Total Project Costs, Impacts Deserve Full Consideration, too

The big spread in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser "Insight" section today is all about the Big Wind project – although to the writer’s credit, she didn’t actually use the term that’s too much in vogue these days.

Big Wind is the proposal to build 200-MW farms on Molokai and Lanai and export their power via underwater cables to Oahu and within Maui County itself.

Total cost of the two farms and the cable is estimated at $3 billion, or about one billion bucks each. Neighbor island residents who testified at the recent scoping hearings were nearly all opposed to installing 400-foot-tall turbines on their islands and, they say, forever changing the islands’ character.

Paper Deadlines

A US Department of Energy official in the story is credited by the reporter with saying the Big Wind project is “Hawaii’s best option for meeting a deadline now adopted in state law: producing 40 percent of its electricity through renewable sources by 2030.” (That’s a quote from the story, not a direct quote of the official.)

Someone close to the process of creating the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative's goals has said they were pretty much arbitrarily selected. They sounded good at the time, are potentially achievable and still sound good, but the question needs asking: At what price will Hawaii pursue them?

Are there limits to what we’re willing to do and spend to meet the 40-percent goal? We have difficulty believing Lanai and Molokai residents will lower their opposition to hundreds of 400-foot-tall wind turbines on their islands. Call it a hunch based on the fate of other projects that once were up for community acceptance – especially on Molokai.

With geothermal energy already providing base-load power on the Big Island and having a promise of much more, is Big Wind truly the best and most economical way to reach the HCEI goals?

Some already are proposing a major expansion of the Big Island’s geothermal field – in energy output, not the size of the field’s footprint. Hydrogen fuel could be created from the geothermal energy process for transport by ship to other islands and – thinking big – to the mainland or elsewhere. In other words, Hawaii could become an energy exporter by skillfully developing its impressive geothermal resource.

Another potential base-load power source is ocean thermal energy conversion, which still awaits funding for a chance to make good on its vast potential. Today’s Star-Advertiser’s story mentions OTEC as a prominent alternative to Big Wind, and the 2/28 edition of the Wall Street Journal (already available online) touts OTEC as one of three technologies “that may provide more energy in the future.”

Biggest Bang for Buck

Also to the writer’s credit, she did not assert in today's story that Big Wind would actually create 400 MW of electrical power for export to Oahu. As we’ve taken pains to note this month (see earlier posts below this one), something called the “capacity factor” must be considered when evaluating how much power actually would be produced by any given generating plant.

Oil-fired generators have a capacity factor of about 100 percent, since they’re base-load sources and only come off line for maintenance and during the odd unplanned outage. OTEC, if it’s ever built, also would have a CF near 100 percent.

Wind farms have capacity factors much less than that, and it’s been estimated that the Big Wind project’s capacity factor would be around 23 percent due to variability in wind strength. We usually use 25 percent, since one-fourth of 400 MW is easy to calculate. On average, the two wind farms would export about 100 MW of power, not 400.

Dropping one to three billion dollars onto geothermal energy and OTEC could go a long way in achieving HCEI’s paper goals, too. We agree with a Hawaiian Electric Company official who’s quoted in today’s story, “We’re way early to take (any energy source) off the table.”

It also figures that it wouldn’t be right to push one pet project – and that’s what Big Wind seems to have become for many – to the exclusion of other forms of renewable energy that could provide base load power with far fewer impacts.

No comments: