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Friday, March 15, 2013

Hawaii's Renewable Potential

 Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider


Click here to see a YouTube video of these turbines in action. The sound you hear is the wind blowing.
Any visitor to the dry side of Maui (where I am presently vacationing) can’t help but notice the wind turbines. Like all energy sources, wind has its downsides. There's now a scar gouged out of the mountainside to create an access road to them, and at night the mountain has a series of blinking lights up one side. Wind farms are notorious for messing up natural vistas.

At first glance, it didn’t seem likely to me that they will kill many birds, and I’m sure they studied the topic well, but just seconds before I hit the record button to video the turbines at close range, a large flock of seabirds flew through my view finder with the turbines in the background. What a shot that would have made. The public doesn’t have access to the base of those turbines to see if there are any dead birds lying around. Hawaii already has a very large number of endangered bird species.

While whale watching from a boat just downwind from those turbines on a day when the wind speeds were exceeding 50 mph I spent most of my time staring at the turbines instead of the whitecaps. I noticed that several were not spinning. They were probably shut down because the wind speed was too high. The next morning, several more were shut down because the wind speeds were too low.

Couple that level of intermittency with the fact that they don’t last as long as hoped for (20 or so years compared to up to 60 for nuclear), along with the new power lines that had to be installed and you can get a feel for the upfront costs associated with wind.

Rooftop solar installations, both photovoltaic and hot water, are very common here in Maui. By some estimates, Hawaii is number two in the nation for solar installations per capita, which sounds reasonable considering that Hawaii is by far and away, number one in the nation when it comes to electricity costs. On the other hand, not all areas of Hawaii have as much sunshine as the dry side of the Maui volcano. The average Maui resident would pay about $30K to meet their power needs with solar (sans government subsidy). Compare that to a place like Seattle, which has electricity rates that are three times lower and solar installation costs are twice that of Maui.
Click here and here to see a few examples.

The solar hot water systems look older, suggesting that they’ve been popular here longer, and not being prone to freeze damage like in many other states, probably have longer life spans. Hot water solar can be up to forty percent efficient whereas photovoltaic hovers around 8-10 percent.

Our dinner host last night (who recently put solar on his home) paid about $15K (before subsidies) to replace half of his power. He later decided to replace all of his power but chose not to do so when he was told he would have to pay many thousands of dollars for a study to see if the grid could handle his extra solar and there would be no guarantee that they would allow him to have them after paying for the study. From the Maui News:
The issue appears to stem from a recent surge in photovoltaic systems, adding more renewable energy to the island's electrical grid than Maui Electric Co. can handle. MECO officials said the interconnection studies - which can cost homeowners as much as $15,000 to $20,000 - are needed to ensure their system can be integrated into the grid without causing outages or interrupting a steady energy supply.
The Public Utilities Commission has required MECO to conduct its own review to determine whether a customer can safely connect to the grid, before requiring homeowners to pay for their own costly study.
Solar installers estimate that around 20 percent of the island's circuits, or neighborhood electrical systems, are no longer being allowed to add any more photovoltaic systems because they have hit the maximum capacity of solar energy allowed by MECO
Wind and solar cannot do the job alone.

My wife was wondering why people pay so much to put solar on their rooftops instead of voting to pay a surcharge to have utilities install larger installations like the one shown above at a Maui community center parking lot (which would capture the economy of scale and could potentially be switched on and off by the utility to help stabilize the grid).

She made a good point. My guess is that tax payers would balk at the rate increases, which would be similar to the ones ushered in by the new Maui wind turbines, but maybe not. Citizens investing their own capital are doing their fellow citizens a favor. Considering that the average household has $16K in credit card debt, solar panels are probably not a good investment for the average American. What are some of the risks?

  1. You are likely to move and not be able to recoup your investment in selling price.
  2. Government policies may change, reducing or even eliminating subsidies.
  3. Significant grid usage fees may develop as more wind and solar go on line.
  4. You might need a new roof.
  5. System maintenance costs like cleaning and inverter replacement may be higher than expected.
  6. Your capital may have earned a higher return if invested elsewhere.
  7. Rates may drop (a cheaper way to generate electricity than liquid fueled generators may arrive), making your solar panels less likely to pay themselves off.

I like the concept of rooftop solar. It is a better investment than paying $30K for a car. You could pay $15K for a car and replace half of your power with the other $15K (in Maui, not Seattle). Solar is unique as status symbols go in that it at least has the potential to turn a profit and reduce carbon emissions. My advice would be, if you can pay cash, solar is worth investing in if you live in a sunny area and have a roof sloping the right direction because there is relatively little to lose (or gain), and when it comes to bragging rights, they are hard to beat, especially if you are powering a Nissan Leaf, which I’ve noticed are also common here on Maui.

Maui has one of the last remaining sugar mills in Hawaii. Ironically, before the word biofuel was even coined, the burning of bagasse at sugar refineries once produced a significant amount of Hawaii’s electricity.

I dropped in to the sugar museum and also took a walk around the outside of the sugar refinery. There are fields of sugarcane everywhere you look. Brazil makes its ethanol from sugarcane, switching from ethanol production to sugar (food) production depending on price spreads. The Maui mill produces only sugar and molasses. The sugar industry in Hawaii hangs by a thread and is largely dependent on sugar tariffs to remain financially viable. Congress recently extended the sugar program until the end of September.

I was surprised to see a large pile of coal along with about a dozen large fuel tanks containing # 2 fuel oil at the sugar mill. I was told that they use these fuels when they run out of bagasse to burn, but that sure seemed like a lot of fuel to me.

I bring this topic up because you might think that Hawaii could make some of its own liquid fuel, considering the high cost of gasoline here and considering that by some estimates, cane ethanol has an energy return on energy invested that is roughly three times better than corn ethanol, which by government fiat, displaces roughly ten percent of our gasoline supply, including the gasoline used in Maui.

I’m not a big fan of biofuels in general because of the added pressure they put on food prices and natural ecosystems. The sugar cane fields are burned before being harvested every two years.

Hawaii makes the majority of its electricity from liquid fuel, which is inefficient considering that liquid fuels are so valuable for transport, and correspondingly more expensive than fuels like coal and natural gas typically used to make electricity. Imagine the cost of trying to displace coal or natural gas with corn ethanol.

Hawaii is also home to “the world’s first commercial utility combustion turbine power plant powered entirely with biofuel…” According to the Hawaii Electric Company, they are using biodiesel to reduce oil imports. Ironically, or maybe nonsensically, they’re using imported biodiesel to do that.

Nuclear? In Hawaii? I bring this topic up because a dinner party guest had suggested that nuclear energy would never be accepted in Hawaii. Considering that there already are dozens of nuclear power plants in Pearl Harbor, I’m not so sure about that.

One might think that if wind and solar have a chance of reaching their maximum potential and of being cost effective without government subsidies, it is in a place like Hawaii where rates are already high, there’s plenty of wind and sun, and most power already comes from petroleum fueled generators that can quickly come on line when the wind stops or the sun quits shining.


  1. The following comment came to me in an email. It is civil and pertinent so I'm sharing an excerpt from it below:

    "Wind farms are expanding in Britain. Much controversy. The turbines sometimes burst into flames when under severe load of high winds, they don't always shut down automatically.

    Brits have been installing FIT/grid tied solar panels in large numbers. Many of them are free because of deals with suppliers who get a big piece of solar returns.

    Have you done any reading about tech advances, epitaxy and higher output?
    Absolute black? Chinese production? Gallium arsenide?

    I'd like a microhydro domestic power station."

    I saw a video of a burning wind turbine that was stunning. It shorted out and sent bolts of lightning to the ground. I'm sure that does not happen often.

    I try not to write about research because very little of it ever becomes a viable product. It's almost like writing fiction. One exception was the A123 battery. I followed its development and they now power my electric bike. However, the company was mismanaged and fell into bankruptcy. I'm glad I resisted the urge to invest in them.


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