Monday, April 23, 2012


So I've been asked about my opinion a lot lately on the whole local "geothermal" thing, so I thought I'd drop a few notes here about the whole deal.

First, my opinion on whether I'd support such or not--which is: "I don't know."

And I think that's a good position for a lot more people to hold, as I find often that those with the strongest views are the least informed. Maybe we could clear up a few misunderstandings here and ask a few intelligent questions.

First, let's be clear. Geothermal is not a renewable energy source. It IS an "alternative" energy source, and an important one. You must drill for heat just like you might oil, and while the "hot spot" under the island will be there for a very long time, the rate of harvest of that heat from the rock surrounding the drill site is much higher than the replenishment rate, and eventually, especially on an industrial scale, you use the viable amount of it up, and you've got to re-drill somewhere else. How fast is and how much you get out is largely speculative until you drill, though good predictions may be made, and other unknowns involve how much erosive and corrosive dilapidation of the well casings will occur, and how fast, and how soon they will need to be replaced. It's not like one sticks a hole in the ground and electricity comes out. But compared to many other alternative energy schemes, especially biomass to energy-- it has the potential to be vastly more effective with vastly lower complications-- and it uses proven, scalable industrial technologies. There's very little pie in the sky on that score.

Second, it's completely unclear about how if at all the local economy will be helped in the slightest by expanding current geothermal capacity. It's not at all like the proposals pledge to delivering megawatts at competitive industrial rates at all, it's not at all like the actual business entities that profit by ownership of the projects will return any of the value to the local economy(a few jobs, sure, but you can say the same about the guys delivering gasoline in trucks.) There is some systemic risk of property damage present, and in fact appears to me that local value, and heritage, is being harvested without due compensation for that risk. A weak pledge of  "lower electrical rates" isn't enough to set those concerns aside. It would help a lot if real numbers were discussed, but of course no one wants to do that because no one really knows whats down there, and it's the fact that we're held hostage by high and rising oil based costs that makes Hawaii as compelling to the geothermal industry as much as the fact that there's heat down there.

Third, comparisons keep getting made to Iceland. These aren't very fair. Iceland is an island, but one pretty close really to industrial centers, it's very far away from China, it has a capable educated workforce, and it has tons of hydro power as well. It has an electrical grid that is capable of supporting industry and a history of it as well. It has serious ports capable of shipping real industrial capacity in and out. It has its own currency and banking system, that it can manipulate for favorable purchasing of raw materials. It has a government that recently went through major upheaval and threw the bums out. Hawaii, and Puna in particular possesses none of those characteristics-- it only has hot rocks. So why on earth would a geothermal company want to drill here if there's no customers doing anything worth purchasing it? Well, it doesn't take much speculation to figure that one out-- but again, not a bit of local benefit for those taking the risk and loss of value. Remember, that heat in the ground is energy just like oil is, it's worth money just like oil is, and nobody has any business taking that resource away from the common state ownership without due compensation for its value. Seriously!

Lastly, without other checks in place, adding geothermal does nothing at all, at all, for the environment. It simply adds capacity to make it easier to consume what we already do and more so. We'll burn both the fuel we currently do and the geothermal electricity as well. That's a net loss for the ecosphere, and there's really no other way to spin it.  I know that's a bummer, and a lot of people can't bang this one through their heads, a fact others exploit-- but "conventional energy" plus "alternative energy" equals more consumption. And sorry to say, but that's bad. If we had caps on consumption in place, by perhaps credits or tax, that might not be the case, but without 'em, well, you just get more dead penguins. So let's drop any pretense of the "green" angle, OK???

So heck, I don't know, but a lot of things would be pretty helpful to clear things up. 1) A pledged rate of delivery per KWH, and numbers at discount for industrial users. Iceland pays 4.3 cents per KWH-- maybe the developers could commit to a contractual obligation to delivery at 10 cents?  2) At least a discussion of something like the oil funded Alaska State Fund or some such, where residents are compensated for the loss of their natural resources. 3) A sensible discussion of the alternatives, even if just to clear the air of misunderstandings about algae based biofuel or other such horseshit. 4) a reasonable discussion of global fossil fuel depletion at the state level, free of baloney, as the whole island economic plan needs to kinda wake up-- seriously, and let's get climate change on the table as part of the discussion as well. Otherwise, we're looking at status quo piecemeal profiteering, and that's not going serve anyone, 'cept a few, at all.

Just my two bits. I do believe that geothermal could be a boon for the Big Island. I also am certain that we must do something, as the status quo of reliance on diesel fuel is extremely dangerous. We are hanging by a thread on that score. It's just important that while we face that urgency we don't sell ourselves out in the rush to do so.

Feedback, of course, is welcome.


Timothy Sullivan said...

You nailed the issues. We all know the politicians and developers are corrupt. As I see it, it's up to the community to put up enough resistance not necessarily to stop the development, but to force (as best they can) the developers into offering favorable terms for the community, both from a benefits standpoint and assurance of safety. My biggest concern at this juncture is, how safe is it to have geothermal in a residential neighborhood like Leilani? What's the standard around the world in drilling away from populated areas?

Also heard some interesting historical background on PGV from Steve Hirakami. (That's why the Pahoa bypass was build; the trucks wouldn't have made it through Pahoa.)

After reading lots of "pros and cons" about the issue, the most optimistic take I can muster is to be wary when big money hooks up with politicians. But what else is new?

jaywfitz said...

Hey Tim, thanks! I tend to agree. I wouldn't be wholly against the idea, but without due monetary compensation for assuming the risk, it's negligible value for the community. And I really doubt that the developers would be interested if those were the terms.