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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

IS HAWAII ON THE RIGHT TRACK TO ATTAIN ENERGY SELF-SUFFICIENCY?

I am scheduled to appear with Jay Fidell and Sharon Miyashiro (here with Darren Kimura to the right) on "Is Hawaii on the Right Track to Attain Energy Self-Sufficiency" today, which might be accessed through Think Tech Hawaii, at 4PM, with the half hour TV program on OC16 (in Hawaii) later this month.  Click here for a radio version of this discussion.

Let me provide the essence of what I will be saying, but thought I'd first summarize my experience in this field, as half the readers everyday click on this site for the first time.  If you have no interest in this background, skip to the portion below *********** at the bottom.

I was born in Queen's Hospital, grew up in Kakaako, went to Pohukaina, Central Intermediate and McKinley High School.  My first visit away from the Territory of Hawaii was to Stanford University, and when I graduated, most of my close classmates joined the Peace Corps, where they got $95/month suffering in some third world jungle.

So I felt somewhat conscience stricken and decided to earn $500/month as a trainee for C. Brewer at the Hutchinson Sugar Company near Naalehu, the southernmost community of the USA, where there was no radio reception.  So my first job was as a biomass engineer, and you can read a lot more about this period of my life here.

Amazingly enough, after a few years in three plantations, C. Brewer offered to pay my salary to go to Louisiana State University for a master's, which had the only sugar program in the world.  As this was part of the chemical engineering department, after a semester, it occurred to me that in only three more years I could get a PhD.  Alas they said they didn't need PhDs in the sugar industry, but they were kind enough just to cut of my salary and said let them know when I returned to Hawaii so I could pay they back in some way.  Now on a full fellowship with tuition waived and Pearl working as a nurse, life was enjoyable, where Pete Maravich, Tiger football and all those Cajun festivals were being held every weekend somewhere in the state.  My dissertation had to do with building a tunable laser before one could be bought and zapping the DNA/RNA bonds of E. coli in a microreacter.

Armed with a PhD in biochemical engineering, I joined the engineering faculty at the University of Hawaii in 1972.  One summer I produced a biomass report for C. Brewer, and they said that was enough.  I also had the opportunity to spend two assignments at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on laser fusion, my posting of this past Saturday.

I became one of the reservoir engineers for the Hawaii Geothermal Project, and at a depth of 6140 feet, we drilled the hottest geothermal well in the world at 675 C, and produced 3 MW of electricity.  I thought one of the more promising efforts was Noi'i O Puna, the geothermal equivalent of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) for ocean energy.  Dedicated nearly thirty years ago, I wonder where this technology could have gone under ideal conditions, for artists converted the silica into glass for art forms, we did research on the future of geo-onsens, enhanced the productivity of seedlings, and so on.

Then, when oil was $3/barrel (note that the real cost relative to today is around $15/barrel) and gasoline wars dropped prices to less than 10 cents/gallon, came the First Energy Crisis in 1973.  Dean John Shupe convened ten of his professors to solve the energy problem.  He had ten topics, and as I was the newest, saw that wind energy was the only option left. 

This episode shows how one can become an expert without knowing anything.  Read the details here, but in six months I became chairman of the Wind division of the American Solar Energy Society and five years later helped pass the original wind energy bill in the U.S. Congress.  In the mid seventies, now at the newly formed Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, I led a computer modeling task force to produce energy self sufficiency plans for each island.  Our conclusions then were:
  • Hawaii had sufficient renewable resources that we someday could become energy independent
  • renewable electricity depended on the development of technology and the price of oil
  • our biggest problem was transportation, and the two best options seemed to be:
    • biomethanol from the gasification and catalysis of biomass for ground transport
    • hydrogen to power future jetliners
The added advantage of methanol was that it is the only liquid that can be effectively utilized by a fuel cell without a reformer.  A fuel cell can take a vehicle 5 times further than any battery.  

In 1979 came the Second Energy Crisis, and I was asked to work for Senator Spark Matsunaga, and thus had the opportunity to pass legislation related to the above renewable pathways, and others, three of them being for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), Wind Energy and Hydrogen.  After three years I returned to Hawaii, and with Paul Yuen, who was the new dean of engineering, created the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research.  Our two largest projects amounting close to $50 million were on OTEC at NELHA and biofuels on Maui.  During the 80's a sum of nearly $2 billion was spent on the National Aerospace Plane, which hopefully was to become a future hydrogen jetliner and Pirelli did the first study on connecting the Big Island and Oahu with an undersea cable to send geothermal electricity to Honolulu.  Looks like we are on the verge of doing this again.

Over the next few years HNEI became the host for the Department of Interior Marine Minerals and Technology Center, Department of Energy Hydrogen Center and National Science Foundation Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center.  The Blue Revolution loomed as the next really big future for Hawaii, as we are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, and a sustainable pathway to produce marine bioproducts and clean energy on grazing platforms offered the best economic opportunity for the state.

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Okay, so I guess I should be an authority on whether Hawaii is on the right track to attain energy self-sufficiency.  Now being in my 15th year of retirement, here are my current out of the mainstream thoughts on this subject:
  • There is no right or wrong track.  Spending priorities and crises determine the budget.  We should better support education and allocate far less for war, but the Military-Industrial Complex is formidable.  After three years in Congress, you get a pretty good idea who runs the country.  Can you imagine where the world would be today had we taken that $3 trillion we spent on the recent Middle East Wars and applied that sum to renewable energy and the remediation of global climate warming?  Averaged over the past decade or so, these topics might have received a couple of percent compared to just that war.
  • Most don't realize that we in Hawaii pay 15% more for gasoline than the national average, but 300% more for electricity (36 cents/kWh versus 12 cents/kWh).  Thus, it makes sense to focus on renewable electricity.
  • Further, Hawaii is about the only entity in the nation almost totally dependent on oil for electricity.  This is dangerous.  Reducing the risk by importing liquified petroleum gas (LPG) might seem attractive, but the billion dollar investment for infrastructure means that we will be stuck with this option for a long time to come.    LPG is already twice the equivalent cost of natural gas, and future is unpredictable.  In any case, Hawaii will be dependent of fossil powered electricity for the foreseeable future.
  • There is a deep "Keep Hawaii, Hawaii" attitude across the state, and support seems low these days for wind farms, geothermal fields and biomass to energy projects in anyone's neighborhood.  Plus, no doubt, ratepayers and others will long delay any interstate electric cable program.
  • It would be unwise, actually, to use precious tax dollars to totally subsidize Hawaii into energy independence, for that would totally ruin the economy.
  • Let's say through some miracle, and this could take many many many decades, we become electrically self-sufficient.  Electric cars can begin to replace gasoline-powered vehicles, so we're safe then, huh?  NOPE!  At least a third of our energy use is for aviation.  There is today no effort to take on this challenge.  If the price of oil doubles to $200/gallon, airline ticket prices will skyrocket, tourism could drop by 50% and the Hawaiian economy will be the very first to go into a serious depression.  If oil remains high for a long period, I fear the worst.
  • Why don't we take on this challenge?   Hawaii is too small to make a difference:
    • A serious attempt spurred by the Matsunaga Hydrogen Act was made for the hydrogen jetliner with the National Aerospace Plane in the 1980's, but that effort was abandoned.
    • When Barack Obama became President and Daniel Inouye controlled Senate appropriations, there was a chance to initiate a sustainable aviation program, but that never materialized.
    • Rinaldo Brutoco is attempting to build the H2 Clipper (above), a hydrogen dirigible, but government is not interested, and neither is the airline industry.
  • So the current focus on renewable electricity is about all we can really do.  Connecting the islands with an undersea electric cable makes sense, but will cost more than a billion dollars, to be absorbed by the ratepayer.
  • In the meantime, the Blue Revolution to produce marine biofuels, hydrogen, next generation fisheries, accommodate a Disney at Sea, provide a base for a casino, etc., in  harmony with our ocean environment, is the only attractive future economic opportunity for Hawaii.


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