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Monday, April 18, 2011


Let me underscore that I am 100% in favor of any renewable electricity option over fossil and nuclear, even if some technologies are not today economically competitive.  I believe there is something to life cycle costing, so, therefore, since the fuel itself is free, as oil prices go up, it will be a matter of time before the economics reverse.  Plus, sustainable resources are cleaner and safer, unlike the carbon dioxide and nuclear waste problems associated with those conventional sources.

Windpower (First Wind's farm at Kahuku shown above) is today the most promising option for one major reason:  it is in a category with hydropower and geothermal power as being already competitive with oil, coal and nuclear.  I'm probably making this sound almost too negative, but there, however, are two almost glaring deficiencies:  

1.  If wheeling is brought into the equation, the price of wind electricity will go up, and as much as  double for longer distances.  In the case of, say, Lanai electricity to Oahu, this extra billion dollars or two will determine financial success.  Who pays for it?  Ultimately the ratepayer, of course, but these are the intricacies of our "free" enterprise system.  The following is a map of Lanai (blue is best, red is good and purple is next--most of the large wind farms across the mid part of the USA are in the purple range):

2.  The power capacity (capacity factor) question has been raised by Doug Carlson and others.  You can read his blog site for details.  In essence, the issue is what average percent of the maximum rated windfarm energy can actually be provided.  The quoted percentage varies between 30 and 50%.  The U.S. Department of Energy has reported a 36% capacity factor for all turbines in 2006.  Frankly, this looks awfully high, and maybe understandable, as the report is written by wind advocates.  My experience with this subject is that a wind energy conversion device (WECS) is usually considerably overrated, one of the unfortunate delusions of this technology.  Although manufacturers are a lot more reasonable today, say a WECS is rated to generate 1000 kW at 27 miles per hour.  The problem is how often are the winds at that level (plus, depending on the machine, at higher speeds, there is a governor that limits production for safety reasons).  Unfortunately at a great velocity of 20 MPH, this device will generate 400 kW (already at a 40% capacity factor), and only 170 kW at 15 MPH.  The power increases with the cube of the wind speed.

3.  The discussion in "2" thus means that a 400 MW windfarm could well only provide 100 MW on average to Oahu.  As Hawaiian Electric Company, following national utility standards, supposedly can usually accept more than 150MW of intermittent power, this matter of wasting windpower should not be a big issue.  However, from midnight to 5AM, electricity demand on Oahu can drop to 500 MW, and if HECO sticks to its stated 15% maximum intermittent input, and the winds are fierce on Lanai, only 75 of the 400 megawattage  will be accepted.  Energy storage is just too expensive.

4.  There are only small regions where our winds are optimal.  The windmap above shows that Hawaii's best site is, interestingly enough, over the ocean between Maui and the Big Island.  I've always felt that if a way could be found to float large grazing plantships with these turbines. moving in a gyre pattern, that would be ideal, for, in addition to the maximum wind energy density, these winds would have minimal turbulence.  Mountains are terrible for wind quality, which affects the gears, propeller lifetime, etc.  Maybe this power might need to be applied to dissociate water to store hydrogen in ocean bladders for pick-up by hydrogen dirigibles (see final photo), for transmission would be a challenge.  In any case, no such marine option exists today, and, as far as I know, no one is doing any funded research on this potential.  HINT!  HINT!  Someone, do something!

5.  By the way, residential windmills are hardly worthwhile because very few homes are built where the average wind speed is higher than 17 MPH.  There might be a plus to those cheaper vertical axis devices that remove hot air from your attic, for you thusly reduce air conditioning.  Larger windfarms can take advantage of ideal sites and economies of scale.  The almost condemning limitation of the wind, sun and waves is that they are not predictable.  Geothermal and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) provide base load power, a huge advantage.  Thus, in the competition for utility contracts, these latter alternatives should be able to gain a higher selling price.  Unfortunately, OTEC will not be available for many years, and, by then, all the capacity might well be taken, which would be a shame, for this is firm power.

6.  Solar thermal and photovoltaics look promising, but are still very expensive.  While windpower might well be 6 cents/kWh, large solar thermal farms remain above 10 cents/kWh and solar PV higher than 20 cents/kWh, without the Federal and state credits.  Coal and nuclear electricity costs are at around 5 cents/kWh.  New coal (with carbon sequestration) would be double that, and it is unclear what nuclear really is today, although prices in the 15 cent/kWh level have been mentioned.  In any case, future nuclear fission is dead for now.

5.  Geothermal energy today produces 30 MW on the Big Island.  More resources should be available, but environmental restrictions have limited growth.  The field has also not taken advantage of co-products.  Details can be found in SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth, but click on my 12June2008 posting, for it provides a link to at least one new geo-industry.

6.  OTEC could become a factor if Lockheed Martin quickly succeeds in building a 5-10 MW prototype platform (right).  The next step could be 100 MW of electricity, and possibly freshwater, for Honolulu.  Frankly, I'd be surprised if this electricity for the first facility could be sold for less than 25 cents/kWh, but perhaps some co-product and environmental credit revenues, as suggested by the Blue Revolution, can make even a first enterprise successful.

Thus, there is a looming problem of how large the renewable market can be when an intermittent wind farm has a 400 MW stranglehold for HECO's 1250 MW need, especially as this utility has its own large investment in oil and coal burning facilities.  Geothermal energy and OTEC, though, are baseload, and can spark the formation of new industries.

The latest HECO report shows that electricity sold on Oahu has already exceeded 30 cents/kWh (it was up to 32 cents/kWh in mid 2008).  Then, too, Maui is at 34 cents/kWh, Big Island 38 cents/kWh and Kauai 43 cents/kWh.  Note that while we grumble about that 15% (USA today, average price nationally of $3.85/gallon, Hawaii $4.49) extra we pay for gasoline, electricity here is three times (300%) the national average of 11 cents/kWh.  Our biggest problem is that we are unique in using oil to generate electricity, and it will be a matter of can we convert fast enough, and horrors, not coal, although almost all states mostly depend on this solid fossil fuel.

Goldman Sachs last week predicted that oil prices will fall below $100/barrel by the coming Spring.  However, with Peak Oil looming, the $147/barrel level reached in July of 2008 will almost assuredly be exceeded some time in the future.  But when?  We can only hope that this will take decades, but don't count on it.

Of course, very approximately, electricity is but a third of the local energy pie, with ground transport another third and aviation fuel the final third.  We needed to start the sustainable crusade thirty years ago for all three, and didn't, but we must, absolutely must, start now to minimize the agony that will come.  Electricity is the least of my worries.  I fear Hawaii entering into a prolonged state of economic depression when oil shoots past $150/barrel, causing jet fuel prices to escalate, making airline tickets awfully expensive and reducing tourism by 20% to 50%.  What's particularly frustrating to me is that virtually nothing is being done about a next generation aircraft (which could well be, left, a flying walrus, or the Hawaiian Hydrogen Clipper) capable of being powered by, say, hydrogen produced from OTEC, windpower or geothermal energy, or a serious replacement for jet fuel, which almost surely will come from microalgae.  Alas, all of these pathways will take, at best, a decade, and more probably, a full generation (25 years)...and, probably longer.

The Dow Jones Industrials sunk 140 to 12,202, but it was down 248 earlier in the day.  The S&P  pronouncement dropping the U.S. debt rating into the negative was most of the cause.  World markets almost all decreased, and more than 2% in portions of Europe.  Basically, they are having continuing nightmares about Greece and Portugal. Ah, but I hope you, a year ago, took my advice and bought a lot of gold, for it increased $9/toz to another record high of $1497.  How high could gold go?  In 1980 gold rose to $850/toz.  What is this worth today?

$2,250.00using the Consumer Price Index
$1,970.00using the GDP deflator
$2,140.00using the unskilled wage
$2,500.00using the Production Worker Compensation
$3,280.00using the nominal GDP per capita
$4,470.00using the relative share of GDP

Thus, gold has a long way to go to get even close to what happened in 1980 (which, of course, was after the second energy crisis).

1 comment:

. said...

You mention in item #5 that residential wind power is not a good idea because most areas lack >17mph sustained winds.

Can you clarify why/where you get that 17mph from? Would that threshold vary with different (ie. more efficient) wind machines?