Thursday, July 21, 2011

No Need To ‘See, Touch and Feel’ OTEC Generation

Lt. Governor Brian Schatz visited Molokai recently and met with The Molokai Dispatch on a number of issues, including the proposed Big Wind energy project. After acknowledging that disagreements can arise over efforts to reduce the state’s dependence on imported fuel, he said this:

“When you think about it, we’re at 90 percent fossil fuel, and in order to move from 90 percent imported fossil fuel to clean energy we’re going to actually have to see, touch and feel the generation of energy. There’s no magic wand we can wave where we get clean energy without seeing, touching or feeling it, or paying for it….”

True, there’s no magic wand, but there is indeed one renewable energy technology just waiting to be developed in the islands that residents wouldn’t see, wouldn’t touch and wouldn’t feel – ocean thermal energy conversion.
OTEC plants would be stationed miles from shore, and depending on their hardware configuration, their profiles might be no more visible than a passing Young Brothers barge on the horizon, and possibly less so. Power would be sent to the islands via undersea cable, and so could abundant amounts of fresh water – again depending on which OTEC process is employed. (Makai Ocean Engineering’s OTEC website, source of this graphic, is the best we’ve yet seen for its explanation of the technology.)

The thrust of the lieutenant governor’s remarks was that fairness must be a part of renewable energy projects. When asked about community opposition that in the end might fight Big Wind on Molokai regardless of what’s fair, the lieutenant governor seemed to suggest a definition of “community” that’s larger than the island’s residents:

“I think it depends on how you define community. It’s very early in the process, and I’m confident that we can find ways to make renewable energy work and still have respect for and appreciation for the places where the energy gets generated… And so if you do these things in a way that’s fair, then you can get maybe not everyone unanimously in favor of something, but you can get some degree of consensus. And I think as long as you’re respectful and fair, that’s the right way to do things.”

We’ll have to see whether Molokai will continue its tradition of resisting projects with much less impact on the aina than Big Wind’s turbine farm presumably would impose.

This blog's hope is that Lt. Governor Schatz will become an outspoken proponent of OTEC from within the highest level of our state's government because of OTEC's vast potential to be the base-load energy resource Hawaii so desperately needs – one that virtually no one would notice, let along touch and feel.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Editorial Gives OTEC Two Thumbs Up — At Last; Could OTEC Be Rising as ‘Big Wind’ Runs into Turbulence? UPDATE: Ku`oko`a Plan To Buy HEI Scores Big Ink

Sunday Update: Startup Ku`oko`a’s “heavy hitter” board of directors is highlighted in the Sunday Star-Advertiser’s business section. “Big Wind” rates only a minor, almost parenthetical mention in this story. Just maybe our theory (keep reading, below) about declining support for the wind energy project is seeing some proof. Join the conversation on Hawaii energy issues by signing up at the Hawaii Energy Forum (it's free) and tell us what you think about Ku`oko`a, energy efficiency/conservation programs, Big Wind and everything else about Hawaii's energy future.

Is it possible that ocean thermal energy conversion is now flowing along in the mainstream? The week began with OTEC making a splash on the Star-Advertiser’s business page. It ends with an editorial endorsing the technology as a “promising option” to help Hawaii achieve energy independence.

So what’s really going on?

Has OTEC truly gone from overshadowed and unmentioned status (see March 16, 2008 editorial in one-half of the same newspaper, the Honolulu Advertiser) to the hottest tech of the moment on its own?

Or does this hot new romance with OTEC hint at something else behind the curtain and below the surface – background radiation from a story bigger than the editorial’s content, which – let's face it – could have been written 30 years ago, and probably was?

OTEC and ‘Big Wind’

We’re thinking it does and that it has everything to do with the growing disenchantment and complications around the 400-megawatt wind energy project targeted for Molokai and Lanai.

Just yesterday the Star-Advertiser reported on a Public Utilities Commission ruling that requires Hawaiian Electric Company to go find a new partner for the Molokai segment of the project. It would appear that the whole Big Wind project is receiving the kind of scrutiny that was missing in 2007-08 when this mega-wind project swept through almost unnoticed by the general public – or so it seems in retrospect. The project prompted dueling commentaries from opponents and defenders in the past week that are linked from the renewable energy discussion Forum at Hawaii Energy’s website. (You’re invited to join the discussion there.)

News also broke in the past week of the intervener status both Maui County and Life of the Land have been granted in the Big Wind docket at the PUC.

Turning on a dime to reject one energy technology while embracing others seems to be the new rage. Both Japan and Germany have resolved to dump nuclear power, and although details are lacking, a friend in France says his country has turned against solar energy.

So that’s what we think is happening here, too. Some of the lever pullers behind the curtains have finally concluded that a $3 billion intermittent energy project isn’t even an intermediary stop on the path toward energy independence in the islands.

The new darling is OTEC, and our guess is that you’ll start seeing more evidence of OTEC’s ascendance the rest of this year. We’ll stick with that theory until something or someone convinces us we're wrong.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Memo to N.I. Residents: Oahu Power Rates Are High!

Graphic from Sunday's OTEC story in the Star-Advertiser
Here’s the deal, and we’ll see if Molokai and Lanai residents think it’s a good one: Welcome the Big Wind energy project onto your island and have your electric rates lowered to equal what Oahu residents pay.

What’s your reaction to that, neighbor islanders? Is that a good deal or just so much snake oil?

We Oahu residents already are paying the nation’s highest electricity rates by far -- with the exception of your rates, of course. It’s impossible to believe they won’t increase after a $3 billion energy project is installed that has to be paid for the only way possible – in our electricity bills!

Maybe your electricity rates will decrease from their current impossibly and laughably high levels, but that’s like being thankful for getting a splinter out of your thumb while your hand is still clamped in a vice.

The other piece of the deal, as outlined today in the Star-Advertiser by an executive of Pattern Energy, is the promise of 100-percent renewable energy dependence on Molokai and Lanai, thanks to Big Wind. Pattern’s David Parquet says it’ll happen because the computer models and studies say it’ll happen.

And if It Doesn’t?

Studies look at historical evidence and predict the future based on the past. Are we slam-dunk positive those trade winds will continue blowing for decades to come as the climate changes? That’s something to consider, because the last thing you want to see if you accept Big Wind onto your island is dozens of wind turbines, each more than 400 feet tall, sitting there doing nothing in breezes too weak to turn their blades.

No matter what is offered by Big Wind promoters, it has to be measured against cost and environmental impact, not only for our generation but for your children and their children. It has always seemed beyond sketchy to us to put all our treasure and hopes into one intermittent wind project, especially when it requires undersea cables to fulfill its promise.

Ask any supporter of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) how far the technology would advance with an investment of $3 billion, and we’re pretty sure you’d hear “all the way to commercialization on a level with what Big Wind would produce.”

With $3 billion backing OTEC, we’d be tapping into the world’s greatest and inexhaustible solar energy collector – the tropical ocean that surrounds our state – and it wouldn’t be intermittent power, like wind. It would be base-load power – running 24 hours a day, every day, taken from an ocean that scientists predict will be even warmer with climate change. (For OTEC, warmer surface water is good.)

That amount spent on Big Wind would preempt OTEC’s rollout on a similar scale, wouldn’t it? Only so much money can be squeezed out of the ratepayer – or so it would seem.

But you be sure to think about it, neighbor island friends. Imagine...spending only what Oahu residents pay for electricity.... Could Paradise ever be as sweet?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Media Finally Giving OTEC the Prominence It Deserves

“The tropical ocean is the world’s largest solar collector and storage ‘battery’ -- so big that small thinking apparently can’t detect it.”

That quote is from the third post here at Hawaii Energy Options -- our reaction on March 16, 2008 to a Honolulu Advertiser editorial that omitted ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) from a list of “the Islands’ reservoir of power.”

OTEC was usually missing three years ago when reporters and editors wrote about Hawaii’s renewable energy options. That’s why this blog's first entry said:

“It's past time for lawmakers to look beyond the obvious and get serious about how to exploit the solar energy trapped in ocean waters surrounding Hawaii. Using existing technology, OTEC can extract that energy and create enough electricity to power tens or hundreds of thousands of island homes, as well as commerce and industry.”

What a difference three more years of near-total dependence on fossil fuel and billions of dollars sent out of state can make. Today’s Star-Advertiser puts OTEC on page one of its Money Section in the print edition – big headline, huge photo, half an inside page devoted to OTEC.

OTEC or Big Wind?

Even as the media were ignoring OTEC in March 2008, prominent space was given to the Big Wind project – 400 megawatts of wind energy on two neighbor islands, power shipped to Oahu’s grid via undersea cable.

Castle & Cooke responded to the mood of the moment with a commentary saying it and other Hawaii companies “are ready to proceed with projects that can help Hawaii meet its goal of generating 20 percent of our energy fro renewable resources by 2020.” C&C proposed a 300-400 MW wind farm – just the ticket to put all that unused Lanai land to use and offset the financial losses of the island’s two upscale resorts.

“We cannot afford to waste another year talking about the problems we face,” wrote Harry Saunders, president of Castle & Cooke Hawaii. “We know what they are and how to solve them. What we need is for government to facilitate private investment in renewable technologies and remove the roadblocks standing in the way of a secure and sustainable future.”

Hawaii’s government has gone “all in” on Big Wind since that March 2008 weekend, when oil traded around $111 per barrel on Friday. We can only speculate where government’s emphasis would have gone if commentaries and editorials back then had been pushing hard for base-load, low-impact OTEC instead of intermittent, high-impact wind. (The price quote for Brent crude two days ago was $118.20.)

OTEC's emerging prominence and the public's new awareness of its potential may be what's needed to pull Hawaii's energy planners back from their "all in" gamble on Big Wind -- a technology at once overwhelmingly unpopular with neighbor islanders and insufficient to meet Oahu's long-term energy needs.

With support comparable to what government has given Big Wind, a Big Ocean project using OTEC technology could be launched this decade and eventually meet our needs for generations to come. The time is ripe for the state to shift its focus from the neighbor island wind energy project and start focusing on the limitless and constant source of energy that surrounds us.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Big Wind Public Info Process Shows Signs of Cracking

“You have to go through this process of noise, where you let people feel that they had a platform to speak. But you can’t let the noise distract you because time is a nemesis….” ~ Michael Cyrus, a managing partner at SteelRiver Infrastructure Partners, as quoted by Pacific Business News.

“…if they’re asking Hawaiian Electric (not to) say yes to anything because some people don’t like it, we can’t do that.” ~ Robbie Alm, executive vice president, Hawaiian Electric Company, as quoted by The Molokai Dispatch.

We’ll try not to read too much into those quotes. Taken one way – the way the speakers would want you to take them – they simply are evidence of the dogged determination and commitment Big Wind project supporters have to bring this wind energy project to fruition.

Taken another way, they could suggest a dismissive attitude about the public involvement process with neighbor island residents who have long complained that they feel like second-class citizens. We’d hate to see Big Wind confirm it for them.

Here’s another quote about the Big Wind public meetings, as supplied by Robin Kaye of Friends of Lanai: “Can’t we talk about something besides wind?” Governor Neal Abercrombie asked during his July 2 meeting on the island.

Maybe so, but it’s a pretty good bet that 80-percent-plus of the comments and questions the Governor will get on Lanai and Molokai any time soon will be about wind. After all, he’s the man who threatened back in April to condemn 10,000 acres on Molokai if it were necessary to move Big Wind forward.

Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), the technology many of us believe is Hawaii’s best long-term hope for energy independence, continues to attract media coverage, as it does in today’s edition of Pacific Business News.

Governor Abercrombie would indeed have something else to talk about if he’d direct more of his resources toward base-load energy technologies like geothermal and OTEC and less toward intermittent wind -- especially when there's a headwind blowing at him on the neighbor islands.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

‘Kill Big Wind Project before It Kills Our Pocketbooks’

Today’s Star-Advertiser carries a commentary under the above headline (it’s slightly different in the original) by Mike Bond, energy industry veteran and Molokai resident. His piece rips the proposed wind energy project on Molokai and Lanai.

Bond calls Big Wind “an engineering and financial tsunami that will enrich its backers and leave the rest of us far worse than before.”

He follows a thread we’ve been picking away at for several months – the myth that Big Wind’s planned 400 megawatts of installed generation will satisfy a sizable chunk of Oahu’s power requirements. (See this February post and several others in March and April.) Inconsistent winds, line losses and other factors would not allow neighbor island wind farms to deliver more than a small fraction of their theoretical potential to Oahu via undersea cable.

Bond’s bases his argument against Big Wind on several factors, with the project’s financial impact taking the most heat. He writes, “In fact, no developer will even touch Big Wind unless the entire $1 billion for the undersea cable can be charged to HECO customers, raising our electricity bills by 30 percent.”

The piece should be required reading for anyone affiliated with the Big Wind project – if for no other reason than to be the basis of their response to the newspaper, which we can expect to read in a few days. Drawing out proponents would be a healthy outcome of Bond’s critical assessment of Big Wind, which on this Independence Day weekend concludes with a pitch for greater transparency and democracy through ratepayer participation:

“The governor, HECO et al. should realize that Maui, Lanai and Molokai are not colonies, nor part of the former Soviet Union. It’s time we were given the truth about Big Wind, so this ridiculous project can be quickly killed before it eats us all out of house and home.”

Friday, July 1, 2011

Pattern Energy ‘Won’t Go Forward’ if People Say No; HECO says Opposition Not Enough Reason To Stop

This sign greets visitors at Molokai's airport.
We should have learned by now to check in frequently with the neighbor island newspapers for their coverage of the proposed Big Wind energy project -- The Molokai Dispatch, for example.

It wasn’t until this morning’s report on Hawaii Public Radio by a Dispatch reporter that we heard one of the most important utterances to date about Big Wind, which would install 200 megawatts of wind generating capacity on Molokai and another 200 on Lanai. Their output would be transmitted to Oahu via undersea cables.

A June 26th story at the Dispatch’s website quoted Christian Hackett, senior developer for Pattern Energy, which wants to build the Molokai project:

“We have no doubt that if the community does not support the project after we’ve gone through the process and provided the information and answered questions thoughtfully, this project won’t go forward,” he said. “Molokai residents have a history of successfully stopping projects that they don’t believe in, and that’s gonna happen here – if we don’t get community support for the project, the project won’t go forward.”

Mr. Hackett undoubtedly is an optimist out of necessity and still has hopes of attracting the community support he needs. According to the Dispatch, however, public opinion surveys have found opposition to Big Wind above 90 percent on Molokai.

We don’t know the surveys’ questions, protocols and margins of error, so we have no way of evaluating their quality, but it wouldn’t be surprising if scientific surveys using accepted best practices in opinion polling found similar results. No survey suggesting anything but overwhelming opposition to Big Wind has been publicized to our knowledge.

Count us among the skeptics that Big Wind will ever be built – not with the widespread opposition as described in the surveys and newspaper stories.

“We Can’t Do That”

The bigger reason to question the project, though, is the intermittent nature of the energy source. As a long-time believer in ocean thermal energy conversion and its eventual role in supplying base-load abundant power to the islands, we can’t join the enthusiasm for Big Wind as expressed by some of Hawaii’s major energy players.

That includes Hawaiian Electric Company, which apparently is positioned to endorse major energy projects like Big Wind regardless of public opinion. HECO’s Robbie Alm told the Dispatch last week: “…if they’re asking Hawaiian Electric (not to) say yes to anything because some people don’t like it, we can’t do that.”

“Some people” in this case would seem to be virtually the entire population of Molokai. That’s a questionable position for any company to take – especially a public utility.