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OPINION: Undersea Cables and Power Plays

Posted May 4, 2012, 01:33 PM HST Updated May 7, 2012, 01:46 PM HST
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A geologist overlooks Halemaumau. Photo by Ben Gaddis, USGS.

Imagine if you could live like a Saudi King, but without the scorching desert heat, the scorn of your countrymen, or the constant headache of appeasing multiple spouses. Oh, and a lot less disposable income.

Admittedly, this is going to be a weak analogy. But Big Island residents do have a tiny bit in common with Middle Eastern royalty. They have something other people want, and it’s right under their feet.

Geothermal energy, a thought-provoking resource that struck the fancy of Hawaiian royalty decades before statehood, is gathering steam as a viable replacement for petroleum-based energy.

geothermal-energy-california - property of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

A geothermal energy site in California. Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Between increased oil use in developing countries and the misadventures of corrupt political figures in the Middle East, the price of petroleum has soared over the last few months, fueling a desire by politicians and the public to move away from petroleum-based energy.

Hawaii politicians are no exception, and recent actions by the state government are laying the groundwork for more geothermal activity on the Big Island.

A subcommittee of the state environmental council has approved exceptions that, if approved by the full council, will allow the drilling of geothermal exploration wells without environmental assessments, and the issuance of leases on state and reserved lands.

This would make geothermal exploration a faster and cheaper process, and open up wider areas for potential use.

The future role of geothermal energy is causing deep political divisions - Property of Ben Gaddis

The future role of geothermal energy is causing deep political divisions. Photo by Ben Gaddis.

Also important to future activity is a recently approved bill championed by Governor Neil Abercrombie. Senate Bill 2785 paves the way for future bidding on the installation of an inter-island undersea power cable system.

Proponents envision a day when grids on Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island will be linked together, unifying electrical rates, and providing energy-hungry Oahu with the resources it will need to achieve the state’s mandate of 40% renewable energy by 2030.

In theory, this will lower overall energy prices for most of the state’s population.

Weaning Hawaii off imported oil is a worthy goal. The majority of the state’s oil is currently imported from Asia, at a time when demand from China has begun to soar. Many experts expect the Chinese to start consuming more energy than the United States by the year 2020.

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With undersea power cables now an open possibility, it will be tempting for Oahu energy consumers to graze on Big Island renewables. But how much of a say Big Island residents will have in the process is unclear.

Ideally Hawaii County would be able use its vast geothermal potential as leverage in bargaining for increased services or infrastructure. If Big Island geothermal power will be keeping Oahu televisions and water heaters running, one would hope Hawaii County residents would get something out of it.

If major expansion is to take place, a partnership between the governor, the potential well operators, Hawaiian Electric Company, the Public Utilities Commission, and the County of Hawaii should be formed.

A clear set of goals need to be laid out, and benefits to Hawaii County residents should be

madam pele captured in smoke_property of Ben Gaddis

Madam Pele captured in smoke. File photo by Ben Gaddis.

proposed. If the power players involved expect to sell the idea of sending Big Island energy to Oahu, they should be prepared to sweeten the pot.

It’s entirely possible that in legal terms, the state could lease land for geothermal development and send that energy elsewhere, without much input from residents.

But attempting to tap the 500 megawatts of geothermal power estimated to lie beneath the surface without appeasing locals could breed major resentment, and fire up the passions of activists.

If the power brokers involved simply view our renewables as a cash cow waiting to be milked, they could cause an angry stampede. As illustrated by the Hawaii Super Ferry debacle, protests and lawsuits on a large enough scale can sink an entire project.

Ocean entry at Kalapana_property of Ben Gaddis-vog-lava

Lava reaches the ocean, creating lava haze, or "laze." Sometimes mistaken for "vog." File photo by Ben Gaddis.

Done properly though, an inter-island electrical grid based on renewable resources would be in the Big Island’s interest. Hoarding or even shunning geothermal energy and starving Oahu of renewables would only prove damaging in the long term, as the health of the Big Island economy is dependent on a strong Hawaii capitol.

But Hawaii Island residents shouldn’t shy away from emulating Middle Eastern royalty just a little bit. If their resources are to be used, a few perks should be demanded in the process.

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