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.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Here We Go Again – Oil at $111 per Barrel

We started this blog nearly three years ago on the day oil hit $111 on the way up. We even got pretty worked up about it; here’s a taste of our first post:

“OTEC’s too expensive, you say? Shake out the cobwebs! This is 2008, not the 1980s; oil traded at $111 a barrel today!”

We started the blog to promote the unexceptional idea that ocean thermal energy conversion was indeed viable at that price – and even more so after another $36 was tacked onto the barrel price of oil by July.

Where are we headed today? Nobody knows, because nobody knows how the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East will shake out. We can only assume at this time that the sky’s the limit.

Hawaii has a few more megawatts of installed renewable energy today than it did in March 2008, but the green-energy contribution is still just nibbling around the margins of the total power demand.

Base load energy is what we need. Geothermal energy and OTEC are Hawaii’s best options. No additional megawatts have been added from those technologies in the past three years.

What does that tell you? It says we’re as vulnerable as ever to supply interruptions and spikes in the price of imported energy.

Kama`aina will remember the tire outlet TV spot that played on Honolulu TV stations decades ago:

“Go now, Hawaii. Why pay more?"

Why? Apparently because we’re not yet serious enough about the necessity to get off oil. Maybe the oil crisis of 2011 will do the trick.

Friday, February 18, 2011

All 400 MW of ‘Big Wind’ Could Be Built on Lanai?

That’s what a story in today’s edition of Pacific Business News says in its 7th paragraph:

“All 400 mw could come from Lanai, 400 mw from Molokai or 400 mw could come from Maui,” according an official in the State Energy Office.

The reporter repeats the thought in the 10th graf:

“If Molokai falls through, all 400 mw of energy could be generated on Lanai, as opposed to the original plan to generate 200 mw of wind energy on Lanai and 200 mw on Molokai.”

Was this made known at the “scoping hearing” two weeks ago on Lanai, Molokai, Maui and Oahu? If it was, we missed it in the reporting.

Today’s story focuses on Maui as a potential site for some of the Big Wind project. A representative of First Wind is quoted: “…if we are not able to do the project on Molokai, we would want the state to seriously consider Maui.” So Big Wind’s final location is anything but firm.

That Pesky Capacity Factor–Again

While the Big Wind project is planned for 400 mw of installed capacity, we’re amazed at how loose the reporting is on the actual amount of power that would be delivered by the wind farms.

For example, another PBN story today reports on funding options for an undersea cable to deliver Big Wind electricity to Oahu: “The cable is a critical part of the wind project that would bring 400 megawatts of wind energy from Molokai and Lanai to Oahu.”

No, it wouldn’t. It would deliver the amount of power the wind farms actually would be able to produce due to wind variability, unquestionably less than their installed capacity.

It’s called the “capacity factor,” a subject we covered in late January. Oil-fired power plants have capacity factors close to 100 percent because they’re base-load plants that operate 24/7. Intermittent sources of power like wind and solar farms have much lower capacity factors.

Big Wind’s capacity factor is estimated to be 20 to 25 percent – which means on average, the wind farms would actually be exporting 80 -100 mw of electrical energy between them, or 40 - 50 mw from each island at a cost of $1 billion for each farm to contribute 50 mw or less to Oahu's grid. That's an incredibly steep price.

Why Does this Matter?

To fully understand what we’re getting into with the proposed $3 billion Big Wind project (a billion for each wind farm and another for the cable), we need to accurately assess its anticipated contribution to helping Hawaii get off oil.

When someone writes that Big Wind “could account for up to 25 percent of Oahu’s electricity needs,” we need to appreciate that simply is not true for anything but middle-of-the-night demand -- and it may not even be true then if winds over Molokai and Lanai were light.

Oahu’s peak demand is around 1200 mw, according to a recent column at Renewable Energy by Hawaiian Electric Company CEO Richard M. Rosenblum. To provide 25 percent of the peak demand, Big Wind would itself would have to have 1200 mw of installed capacity!

That would be triple the size and at a presumably much higher cost of the current Big Wind proposal. That surely is not what was discussed at the scoping hearings.

So as Big Wind goes through the required scoping, impact assessing and community relating, let’s all work hard to truly understand the project and what $3 billion (plus?) would get us.

We’ll all be paying for this project in our electric bills. We all need to ask whether that kind of money should be spent on Big Wind or whether a like amount would produce more available renewable power with fewer impacts.

Naturally, we have some thoughts on that subject and have expressed them repeatedly here on this blog. Despite the absence of a test of a commercial-sized plant due to funding impediments, ocean thermal energy conversion is a candidate for base load renewable energy on a scale even larger than Big Wind at the $3 billion investment level.

In light of the strong opposition to Big Wind on Lanai and Molokai, planners might well move some of their fragile energy eggs out of Big Wind’s basket and into the ocean, where they can be hard-boiled.

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.

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.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

‘Big Wind’ Hearing Evokes Strong Opposition on Lanai; Residents Decry Major Impacts, Lack of Energy Options

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, so we’re obligated to connect with football, just as we did at another blog last week on Pro Bowl Sunday.

THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!!! yelled Arizona Cardinal Coach Dennis Green four seasons ago after the Chicago Bears stormed back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

And Lanai residents are who we thought they were, too. Yesterday’s hearing to gather comments on the Hawaii Interisland Renewable Energy Program – dubbed “Big Wind” by promoters – evoked strong opposition, as reported today in the Maui News.

We trust the reporter accurately described their reaction, and we’ll recommend her story for the details. But one comment jumped out – the complaint by Lanai resident Beverly Zigmond that no energy alternatives are listed in the project’s documentation. “The choices are big wind or nothing,” she said.

For the Record

Castle & Cooke was presented a few years ago with a plan to revolutionize Lanai’s energy use by using an ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant anchored a few miles off shore that would free the island completely from its virtually total dependence on fossil fuel.

The plant would have produced more than enough power to satisfy the island’s demand for electricity, as well as abundant quantities of potable water (always an island concern) and hydrogen. Electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles would have provided transportation, and the island likely would have become a magnet for green energy enthusiasts around the world; visitors would have found two (currently money-losing) world-class resorts waiting to accommodate them.

For whatever reason, the company didn’t bite at the opportunity to facilitate the development of Hawaii’s first commercial scale OTEC plant, and the acclaim to be enjoyed for that distinction will be someone else’s legacy.

The point of today’s post is to suggest that there are indeed alternatives to wind power in Hawaii, and that goes for each of the islands. As we noted here not long ago, the state undoubtedly needs all renewable technologies to reach its aggressive clean energy goals. Wind, geothermal, solar, biomass, waste and ocean energy all have their place.

As of now, it seems Lanai and Molokai residents are unconvinced that their islands are the place for Big Wind.