Friday, December 02, 2011


Worrying About Green Energy

By Henry Curtis

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) has selected OTEC International LLC to build a 1 megawatt (MW) Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) generator.

So why am I worried.

After all, I wrote a 234-page report on how Hawai`i could end its use of fossil fuels by 2030. I proposed OTEC islands to power marine, air and ground transportation, heat, light and electricity.  I have been quoted in the New York Times on OTEC, appeared in a French/Canadian film on OTEC and represented Life of the Land in a Hawai`i Public Utilities Commission regulatory proceeding where we brought in a number of nationally respected OTEC experts to promote the use of OTEC as a low impact baseload renewable energy source.

OTEC was contemplated by Jules Verne, tested in Cuba in the 1920s, and, in more recent times, proven by the Japanese at Nauru (1970-) and in Hawai`i at NELHA (1979-). The U.S. Congressional  Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) stated in 1980 that “no technological or scientific breakthroughs are needed for OTEC to become a commercial reality.”

In 1980, Congress passed the Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion Act (OTECA) which established a licensing program for OTEC facilities.  In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president. He ripped out the solar panels on the White House roof, and zeroed out the ocean energy budget.  The dream of OTEC was put on hold. Now dreamers have awoken and regulators are re-examining OTEC.

First worry: OTEC International LLC (OTI) is very secretive. Of all of the companies proposing OTEC in Hawai`i, OTI is the most un-community friendly. Lockheed Martin, Makai Ocean Engineering, Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation (OTE Corporation; formerly OCEES International) and others are all far more willing to discuss their ideas. I have interviewed several of their experts and posted the videos on the web.

Second worry: All other companies recognize that permitting will be challenging.

Following the oil price spike of 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of New Hampshire’s  Coastal Response Research Center held two workshops for regulators, scientists, and industry advocates in 2009 (OTEC Technology) and 2010 (OTEC: Assessing Potential Physical, Chemical and Biological Impactsand Risks). The 2010 workshop was held at the Ala Moana Hotel and I was the one invited observer.

Everyone recognized that in the 3 decades since OTEC made its initial splash, the times have changed. We have a better understanding of ocean ecosystems, more sophisticated modeling methods, new laws and regulations, and new agency personnel.

At the Honolulu Workshop it was noted that NOAA regulates commercial OTEC facilities while DOE can approve pilot projects. DOE made it clear this would not be used to evade NOAA requirements.

Michael Reed, Chief Engineer for Water Power Technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy stated that the “OTEC Act (1980) gives the Secretary of Energy authority to approve OTEC demonstration  projects. ... DOE is working closely with NOAA to develop an approval process for demonstration projects but has not finalized a process yet.”

Michael Reed added that since NOAA primarily focuses on ocean regulation while DOE primarily focuses on research, it was very unlikely that DOE would unilaterally act on a pilot project without relying heavily on NOAA guidance.

One of the key new regulations deals with Cooling Water Intake Structures (Clean Water Act section 316(b)). The proposed 316(b) regulations are undergoing regulatory review and litigation.

Since OTEC systems use significantly greater quantities of water than traditional power plants, and probably at much higher velocity rates, compliance with 316(b) could prove to be very time-consuming. On the other hand, using water 3-4 miles offshore as opposed to coastal or inland water may reduce some requirements.

The uncertainty around CWA 316(b) regulations is one reason why OTE Corporation signed an MOU with The Bahamas. The other, of course, is that HECO does not want proof that baseload renewable energy is available in Hawaii.

Since NELHA was home to an OTEC plant decades ago, and has an existing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for discharging water into the ocean, OTI may argue that it is somehow grandfathered in from current regulations.

All of this is not reassuring.

On a recent blog I posted some of my concerns, to which an OTI representative said: “Henry, OTI is doing community outreach. OTI has gotten to first base with NELHA, but is a ways from the home run, needing lease negotiations, tech stuff worked out. Part of what is going on along side that is meeting with stakeholders, including community groups, on Hawaii Island, but Oahu as well.

I asked specifically who they had met with and received a subsequent email which stated: “There haven't been any community meetings yet because there was really nothing concrete to say.

It should be noted that OTI proposes to use a technology which is different that that which was tested at NELHA and Nauru.

NELHA will be working for the next several months on developing a lease with OTI.

Hopefully answers will emerge before this project is forced to grind to a halt. 

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Henry, could you provide a URL to "On a recent blog I posted some of my concerns" to follow the conversation?

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