Renewable energy an isle struggle
Apr 9, 2007 - Mark Niesse - Associated
Press - Honolulu Star Bulletin
|ASSOCIATED PRESS A jet skier
rides in South Point Bay near the newly constructed
Pakini Nui wind farm, background, in South Point,
Hawaii. The wind farm soon will supply up to 20.5
megawatts of wind energy to Hawaii Electric Light
HAWI, Hawaii - Down a dirt road on America's southernmost
island, 16 windmills tilt their sleek blades toward
the ocean, as dependent on the whims of Hawaii's tropical
breeze as residents are on the electricity they help
The Hawi wind farm on the Big Island makes clean
and affordable energy, but the 100-foot-tall wind
turbines stop when the air is still.
Most forms of renewable energy face a similar difficulty
nationwide: They are cleaner than oil and coal but
fall short on reliability and convenience.
"Everyone is trying to increase their renewable
energy," said Greg Barbour, lead technician at the
Big Island wind farm, which can generate enough electricity
for more than 1,200 homes. "Demand for power keeps
going up, not down. At some point in time, something
will have to be done."
Hawaii seems like a perfect candidate for energy
independence because its Pacific gusts, ample sunlight
and a continuously erupting volcano can be used to
make natural electricity. Its fertile soil also holds
potential for biofuel.
But the islands rely on imported fossil fuels more
than any other state, with about 90 percent of their
energy sources coming from foreign countries and most
of the rest from renewable resources in 2005, according
to state data.
By comparison, the United States as a whole imports
30 percent of its energy, with 6 percent from renewables,
according to the Energy Information Administration.
During one recent afternoon, the calm tradewinds
were only strong enough to turn eight of the 16 wind
turbines at Hawi, forcing the local electric utility
to compensate with other energy sources to avoid power
"If the wind stops, that's a large decline in power
that has to be made up for with generating units,"
said Jose Dizon, engineering manager for Hawaii Electric
Light Co., the Big Island's utility company. "We'll
do whatever we can to try to remove our dependence
on fossil fuels in a way that's economic and reliable
to our customers."
As oil prices are expected to rise and world reserves
dwindle over the next few decades, alternative energy
sources will become more necessary to fuel the world's
high-demand thirst for electricity.
In Hawaii a law passed last year calls for one-fifth
of the state's energy to come from renewable sources
"The utilities are in a tough spot," said Mike Gresham,
vice president for UPC Hawaii Wind Partners, which
runs the state's largest wind farm on Maui with 20
turbines. "Our community understands the time is now
to think about these things, and yet we demand that
they keep the lights on."
The chief challenge for renewable energy is to make
up for a lack of adequate technology.
If there were better ways to store wind energy, the
utilities would not need significant fossil fuel generators
to always stand ready in case the wind dies down.
If solar power were more affordable and efficient,
it could supplement the grid.
One reliable source of clean energy comes from the
heat contained deep within Earth's crust -- the geothermal
energy generated by steam that drives a turbine to
spin a generator.
The main drawback of geothermal energy nationally
is that it is accessible for power generation in so
few states -- mainly Hawaii, California, Alaska, Oregon,
Idaho, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. More than 20 countries
worldwide have geothermal facilities.
"We're really looking to take ourselves off the
oil standard," said Barry Mizumo, a consultant for
Puna Geothermal Venture, which contributes 15 percent
of the Big Island's peak power capacity. "Unlike wind,
geothermal is just like fossil fuel. We keep on producing."
Because geothermal energy is stable, it does not
create the same hurdles to the electricity utility
companies as wind, Mizumo said.
For every megawatt of inconsistent energy the utilities
take on, they need that much electric generating capacity
in reserve, said Karl Stahlkopf, president of Renewable
Hawaii, a subsidiary of Hawaiian Electric Co.
"The problem is there's no accurate method of forecasting
wind," Stahlkopf said. "You need a storage method
that can come in and back that up."
Solar power faces a similar quandary because the
sun sets when electricity customers need power the
most, between 5 and 9 p.m., said Rick Reed, president
of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.
Photovoltaic systems could become far more widespread
if there were better ways to save the energy from
the sun's rays for nighttime hours, he said.
Other abundant natural resources for the islands,
such as wave energy and biofuels, also hold potential
but are far from developed as sources for electricity.
Several companies are working on early efforts to
harness the power of the tides, and Hawaii's electric
utilities plan conversions of existing plants to biodiesel
fuel by 2009, Stahlkopf said.
Two promising storage technologies could make renewable
energies more feasible, he said.
Hydroelectric storage uses excess electricity to
pump water to a reservoir and then release it when
needed to power generators. Also, several companies
are working to develop large battery systems that
could absorb, save and release electricity.
"In the long term view, we need to figure out how
to store energy being made by these renewable sources
so that we have the power when we need it," said Rep.
Hermina Morita (D, Hanalei-Kapaa), chairwoman of the
House Energy Committee.
With more renewable energy sources soon becoming
available -- including a new $200 million Maui wind
farm that will power 15,000 homes -- it is unclear
how much wind electricity the islands' isolated utilities
can take on, Stahlkopf said.
States in the mainland are better suited to inconsistent
forms of energy because larger electric grids need
less stabilization from fossil fuels, he said.
"The potential is huge. We're not lacking the resources,"
said Maurice Kaya, chief technology officer for the
Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
"There may be technological solutions to this intermittence,
but we're not there yet."
As oil prices continue to climb during the next few
decades, pressure will mount for renewable energies
to become more efficient, he said.