Friday, February 11, 2011

With Opposition to ‘Big Wind' Strong on N. Islands, What Now Is the Best Path to Hawaii Energy Independence?

Hawaii must get off oil as fast as possible. On that there’s no disagreement beyond maybe the oil companies, but how we get there is another matter.

Neighbor islanders who spoke up on the plan to install large wind farms on Lanai and Molokai – 200 megawatts on each island – clearly don’t want Big Wind. If there’s support on Maui, Molokai and Lanai, it didn’t show up for the hearings.

Civil BeatHawaii Reporter and the Molokai Dispatch have carried post-hearing pieces on that neighbor island sentiment. So is that the end of Big Wind? After all that planning, invoking and proselytizing, are Big Wind’s backers going to slip away quietly?

Not likely, with heavyweights Castle & Cooke, First Wind, Hawaiian Electric Industries, the State Energy Office and others having invested so much energy into making it happen. But surely, even the most optimistic among them has cause to pause after the emotional objections at the hearings to forever changing the nature of the host islands.

Link or No Link?

Big Wind presumably makes sense only if a cable transmits the two farms’ electrical output to Oahu. The estimated cost of the farms and the cable link among the islands is $3 billion – steep for an average output of 100 MW or less (figured on a capacity factor of 23-25 percent).

Linking the islands has been a long-term vision, starting perhaps with the late C. Dudley Pratt, Jr., who ascended to HECO’s presidency in 1981 and created HEI within six months as a holding company to facilitate renewable energy development.

Would a cable link be viable with a smaller wind concept? Could Little Wind be built independent of a costly cable -- smaller farms with less impacts that reserve some of their generating capacity for other purposes, such as creating hydrogen and/or ammonia? Would that be acceptable to neighbor islanders?

These and other options need study before tossing out the entire concept of sharing individual islands’ resources with all the others. Sharing already happens all the time among the islands. Some residents believe the neighbor islands could get along just fine without Oahu, thank you, but getting along well or anything close to current living conditions would be doubtful.

Sharing the Load

Hawaii has a strong incentive to embrace all forms of renewable, home-grown energy. No other state comes anywhere close to our dependence on fossil fuel for nearly everything we do. Increasing our clean-energy generation is the goal; creating an acceptable mix of energy sources is the challenge.

Geothermal energy on the Big Island is being promoted as the surest way to satisfy that island’s entire electrical demand and create an export component by manufacturing hydrogen for use in other markets within Hawaii and beyond. Kuokoa Inc. is banking on this concept in its bid to buy out HEI and transform the state to 100-percent renewable energy within a decade.

Others are promoting ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) just as aggressively. This blog has long agreed with their assessment that the tropical ocean’s inexhaustible supply of stored solar energy could meet the entire state’s electrical demand with minimal impact to the islands themselves.

Each of these grand schemes – Big Wind, Big Earth and Big Ocean – will require both creativity and compromises to reach their potential. None can expect a smooth path to fruition. The Big Wind scoping hearings are just a prelude to what lies ahead for all.

How promoters react to the opposition, modify their plans, finance them and build support will determine how quickly Hawaii achieves energy independence. That’s the goal – whether it’s within one decade, two or three.

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