Rob Parsons

Here comes the sun

Harnessing Hawaii's renewable energy resource

by Rob Parsons

October 23, 2008

Solar Concentrator

"Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly
melting..." so let's quit burning oil.

Millions of visitors have marveled at Maui's dominant landscape feature, the Haleakala Crater, which stands 10,000 feet above sea level and is known as the House of the Sun. It is there, according to Hawaiian mythology, that the demigod Maui lassoed the sun to slow it down, to allow his mother's tapa cloth to dry. Though abundant sunshine continues to grace our islands, solar energy may be the most underutilized of an array of abundant local resources. Solar photovoltaic systems represent barely a blip on the screen of statewide electricity production, though nearly 10,000 solar hot water systems help offset energy consumption. The legislature recently passed the "Solar Rooftops" bill that will mandate such systems on all new homes constructed after 2009.

But, other than a recent proposal for a 1.5-megawatt (MW) project on the island of Lanai, there has been little effort to consider large installations of Solar Electrical Generating Systems (SEGS). In 1992, a detailed Hawaii study concluded, "The base case economic analysis finds that SEGS plants do not currently appear to be a [sic] cost-effective solar applications for the State of Hawaii." Yet the analysis was made when a barrel of crude oil, Hawaii's primary electrical generation source, cost around $22.

Last year, Maui Sierra Club and Democratic Party Chair Lance Holter, frustrated with Hawaiian Electric Company's (HECO) and subsidiary Maui Electric Company's (MECO) insistence on proposing palm oil biodiesel for generating electricity, set out to identify better options. His research turned up the Solana Generating Station project in Southern Arizona, whose 280-megawatt output will make it the world's largest solar installation.

The project plans to use a technology that has been available for years, Concentrated Solar Thermal Power. Parabolic mirrors capture the sun's heat and focus it on pipes running through the installation. Inside the pipes, heat absorbing liquids are super heated to 600 degrees by the sun which in turn heat water boilers that drive steam turbines to produce electricity. Additionally, liquid salts can be heated to 400-500 degrees and stored, meaning that electricity can be produced well after the sun has set, thus providing a "firm" power source.

The company behind the Solana proposal in Arizona, Abengoa Solar Inc. of Denver, Colorado, will be sending representatives to Maui and Hawaii next week. Holter is helping arrange meetings with state and county utility and elected officials. The Sierra Club-Maui Group will also sponsor a public presentation on Tuesday, October 28, 6:30-9:00pm, at the Kihei Community Center.

Holter was intrigued that the project expects to provide 1,500-2,000 construction jobs, with 85-100 employees thereafter. He directed me to a quote from Fred Krupp's new book, Earth: The Sequel.

Krupp, who has headed the Environmental Defense Fund for 23 years, wrote: "The economic benefits of Solar farming are impressive. A 2006 study?found that solar thermal plants create twice as many jobs as coal and gas plants and produce eight times the retained revenues in the states in which they are located. Each gigawatt of solar thermal-generated electricity, according to the Natural Renewable Energy Lab, will create 3,400 construction jobs, 250 permanent jobs, and $500 million in tax revenues."

The economic benefits should not be lost on a state that has the highest electric rates in the nation and sends some $6 billion out of the state yearly to import fuel. Van Jones's book, The Green Collar Economy/How One Solution Can Fix Two Problems, recently hit number 12 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Krupp, speaking about Jones's book, said, The Green Collar Economy is a both a rallying call and a road map for how we can save the planet, reduce our dependency on budget-busting fossil fuels and bring millions of new jobs to America. Van Jones shows how climate solutions can turbo charge the ailing U.S. economy. So what are we waiting for?"

Abengoa's's parent company is in Spain, where they have 20 years of solar technology development, both CSP and photovoltaic. Besides the Arizona/Solana project, Abengoa also has solar complexes under construction in Spain, Algeria and Morocco.

Scott Frier, Chief Operating Officer of Abengoa Solar Inc. and Fred Redell of Redell Engineering Inc. in Santa Ana, California helped answer some questions about the prospects for solar installations in Hawaii. Both will be making the trip to Hawaii to meet with interested parties.

Abengoa, they told me, has the ability to deploy the full range of solar technologies, from rooftop single-user installations to utility scale facilities, for tens of thousands of homes. A system for Maui and other Hawaiian islands would be sized depending on the need. The size of any project would also be taken into consideration when determining the cost of electricity generated. In general, solar projects benefit from large-scale implementation. This allows the higher cost components to be fully utilized, ultimately resulting in a lower cost of electricity.

Frier and Redell believe that ultimately a mix of electrical generation, including solar, will be needed to satisfy demands as utilities shift energy generation to renewable resources. Abengoa Solar's parent company is involved in many areas of energy and focuses on researching sustainable energy solutions including wind, bio energy and wave energy.

They stated that, depending on the project size and technology, a utility scale solar installation to serve tens of thousands of homes would take roughly 12 to 24 months to complete once permitted. Generally, such facilities can produce a full megawatt of electricity, enough to power 1,000 homes, for every five to ten acres utilized.

Frier said that several larger scale installations were built in the mid-'80s to early `90s in the southwest United States. Several others are currently being planned and built. The current solar renaissance in the United States, says Frier, is also being fueled in part by the recently re-enacted solar investment federal tax credits.

Utility scale installations, says Frier, are like any other power plant or generation facility, except the fuel source is the sun. As solar energy does not have to be imported, and is not subject to the volatility of fossil fuel or biofuel costs, it could greatly help with Hawaii's energy independence, security and diversification of energy production sources.

Holter believes the promise of this technology has been overlooked in Hawaii. "Our public utilities are dabbling in a few renewables, but are largely taking us down a path of enslaving us to more imported oil," he said. "Whether it is imported petroleum, ethanol or palm oil, we ought to consider liquid fuels as better suited to our transportation fuels needs and use our sun, wind, and wave resources for electrical production."

National political hopefuls have been touting the likes of more nuclear power, "clean coal," natural gas and more drilling as strategies to reduce our over-dependence, some say our "addiction," to foreign oil. Holter pointed out that a recent article in Scientific American, "A Solar Grand Plan," outlined a switch that would result in producing more than two-thirds of the country's electricity by 2050.

"Well-meaning scientists, engineers, economists and politicians," the article begins, "have proposed various steps that could slightly reduce fossil-fuel use and emissions. These steps are not enough. The U.S. needs a bold plan to free itself from fossil fuels. Our analysis convinces us that a massive switch to solar power is the logical answer."

Solar energy's potential is off the chart," the Scientific American article continues. "The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year."

Nine concentrated solar power plants with a total capacity of 354 (MW) have been generating electricity reliably for years in the U.S. A new 64-MW plant in Nevada came online in March 2007. These plants, however, do not have heat storage. The first commercial installation to incorporate it-Abengoa's 50-MW plant with seven hours of molten salt storage-is being constructed in Spain, and others are being designed around the world.

Whether the promise of solar energy can rise above the politics and economics of Hawaii remains to be seen. Certainly, having open discussions with community members, energy experts and elected officials will help us collectively plan a renewable energy future and economy that can sustain us all.