Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Expanding job opportunities in Hilo

By Henry Curtis

Some Legislators are asking: Instead of planning to build an undersea high-voltage transmission line several years from now, what if -- for the same amount of money -- the State could expand geothermal generation on the Big Island, and create the infrastructure needed,  so that new Hilo-based industrial parks could start hiring people. Isn't a job today better that fighting over undersea cables for the next several years?

Addressing a joint House-Senate session in late January, Governor Neil Abercrombie delivered his “State of the State 2012” speech.

This is not just an issue about sustainability.  This is about the survival of our state.  In moving forward on our path to advance a clean energy future, failure is not an option.  Reducing our dependence on imported oil will take an equal commitment by government, business, community, family and individuals.  We can no longer view energy production or distribution in an island-by-island context.  We must be united on a statewide basis.  My administration is committed to clean alternative and renewable energies for the benefit of all of our islands. ...

The time of sustainability rhetoric is over.  Bold action is needed now.  We must address two critical issues to position ourselves for increasing use of alternative energy – reliability and infrastructure. ...

One of those investments is an undersea cable that can connect our island grids to provide stable, reliable electricity between islands.  This integrated grid will provide stable energy prices and equalize rates between the islands, which will benefit all of us.  To pay for this critical piece of infrastructure, we are proposing legislation that will attract private capital resources and expertise.  In today’s uncertain world, we cannot postpone Hawai'i’s clean energy future any longer.  We can only get there if we move now.  There is no legislation more critical to our future.”

The Governor also spoke about jobs:

Our recent bond and refinancing sale of nearly $1.3 billion, along with $1 billion of projects that are already on the budget books and another $300 million proposed in this supplemental budget will spur an immediate rise in job growth.”

Some Legislators have told me that energy projects can immediately revitalize the state economy, but in a way very different from that proposed by the Governor.

Governor’s Proposal

The Governor is proposing that an inter-island high voltage transmission line (cable) go from O`ahu to Maui and then from Maui to the Big Island. The cable would allegedly serve three uses: exporting surplus wind from Maui to O`ahu, increasing the reliability of both systems, and eventually bringing geothermal power from the Big Island to O`ahu.

The first segment is technologically feasible, but the second segment can’t work for a technical reason.

The greater the amount of power that would flow through the inter-island cable –  the greater the efficiency and economic viability of the cable. However, at the same time, as the cable increases in power delivery capability, the existing O`ahu grid decreases in efficiency and economic viability.

The O`ahu grid is currently configured to be able to handle the sudden loss of the single largest generator on the island – the AES 200 MW coal plant in Campbell Industrial Park. When that plant suddenly shuts down the grid survives and continues to provide power for HECO’s ratepayers.

Interconnecting the O`ahu grid with a single inter-island transmission line carrying significantly more than 200 MW of power would require HECO to be able to survive a sudden loss of 500-1000 MW of power. This would require HECO to have a dozen of their smaller generators operating in a low power generation mode to handle this potential sudden loss.

This process of operating generators at below their efficient design -- increases the amount of oil needed for each kWh of electricity produced, increases the pollution for each kWh produced, and makes the electricity more costly. It would mean that the Governor’s call for levelizing electric rates between islands would occur by increasing O`ahu’s rates rather than by lowering Neighbor Island rates. 

The inter-island cable, if ever built, will be years down the road. Thus the idea would not create jobs in the near future.

An Alternative Proposal

Some legislators from both O`ahu and the Big Island have suggested an alternative.

Assume that the Hilo International Airport, the Hilo Harbor and the University of Hawai`i at Hilo are all underutilized. Geothermal power can produce firm, continuous, baseload renewable energy at cheaper rates than any other Hawai`i option except coal. Hilo has plenty of land. Geothermal steam comes out of the earth, powers generators, and is returned to the earth in a closed cycle without air emissions.

What if the billions of dollars being planned for the inter-island cable went immediately into expanding geothermal generation, building a Hilo Industrial Park, building a Hilo Innovation Center (similar to the Manoa Business Incubator), and building a Hilo Energy Lab (similar to NELHA)? Tax credits could be used to spur job growth and innovation. Job creation would be immediate and lasting.

Other Issues

The interisland cable proposal is premised upon the fact that O`ahu lacks sunshine, wind, waves, biomass, hydro, geothermal and ocean thermal resources to be able to produce its own electricity. That was convincingly shot down recently by national energy experts.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is a think tank representing utilities which make 90% of the electricity sold in the U.S.

EPRI has just released a study on ocean wave energy potential. The Available Wave Energy Along O`ahu’s Inner Shelf is 14 terawatt hours per year (14 billion kilowatt hours per year).

HECO, MECO and HELCO sell 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Thus O`ahu could provide all of its power from using only wave energy.

O`ahu could also get all of its power from using only solar, or only using ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).

Sources: Mapping and Assessment of the United States Ocean Wave Energy Resource (December 2011) Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI):  Table 4-4 Hawaii Available Wave Energy Resource by Major Island, p. 4-3, pdf p 73)

Hawai`i Electric Company  10-K filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), covering calendar year 2010 and submitted to the SEC on February 18, 2011, p. 7; pdf p. 16

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Aloha Henry,
Do you happen to know what chemicals are injected into geothermal wells and the effect on the surrounding groundwater environment? Are these chemicals related to fracking in any way? Curious minds want to know.

When the Governor says it is time to stop talking and start doing, we should all slow down. We are being pressured to suspend our doubts and allow him and his dealmakers to impose a plan upon us without our due diligence. This is not too dissimilar to how Mufi's Train was imposed upon us. Or the Convention Center.

From my superficial consideration of things, I believe geo-thermal energy is a very cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels for generating electricity. I am less convinced of the cost/benefits of the the undersea transmission cable and the Lanai/Molokai wind farms.

Before we rush to embrace ocean energy projects, I hope close attention is paid to the likely destructive impact the noise will have on marine life. Noise travels ver far underwater. I can only imagine the harsh, creaking sounds some of the technologies might generate.

I believe that the same chemicals that come out of the ground re-enter the ground.

But the water is cooler and that can lead to fissures.

You are asking too much of some decision-makers. They don't use common sense or objectively analyze the merits of a project. They decide on how much the lobbyists whisper into their ears. Obviously, thelobbyists' goal is to bring money to THEIR project, come hell or highwater.

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