Editor’s note: *This is the last column in a three-part series on energy and food security by Richard Ha. Part 1: Trying to be Safe by Doing Nothing is No Longer Safe . Part 2: Expensive Electricity Threatens Hawaii’s Food Security .

Farmers cut straight to the chase. We farmers are concerned about survival, the bottom line, people and the environment.

Although we do support maximizing other technologies available to us in Hawai‘i, here I am talking about “base power” electricity – stable, steady power. Eighty percent of our electricity needs to be stable, steady base power. Base power has the biggest impact on our electricity bills.

CRITERIA FOR SELECTING “BASE POWER” TECHNOLOGY

Power 
Source
Low Cost Environmentally
Friendly
Proven
Technology
Fossil fuel No No Yes
Biofuel No (?) No
Geothermal Yes Yes Yes

Geothermal is the base power solution for generating electricity. It is the low cost, environmentally friendly, proven technology. It allows for the much more expensive oil-fired generating plants to be shut down.

O‘ahu does not have a low-cost solution for generating base power. But running cables between islands is technically doable and, unlike what some seem to think, does not begin to approach the difficulty of flying to the moon. It can be done.

Biofuels, on the other hand, are especially challenging. That is a largely unproven technology. The EPA radically revised downward its estimate of cellulosic biofuels production for 2011 – from 250 million gallons to 6.5 million gallons. Quite a difference.

The first issue regarding biofuels is that of scalability. One needs to be able to take an idea from bench top to demonstration scale to industrial scale production. One energy expert likened the process to roasting one turkey; then demonstrating the roasting of 1,000 turkeys, making sure they are not burnt on the outside row and undercooked on the inside; then continuous roasting of 100,000 turkeys, each of them perfectly crispy and good.

Many of the current biofuels projects are at the 1,000-turkey stage. One is at the one turkey stage, and wants to skip the 1,000 turkey stage and go straight to the continuous, 100,000-turkey stage. 

The other issue is about feedstock. Making biofuels from waste oil works. You get used, extra virgin olive oil from a restaurant and process it into biofuel. That works. But farmers just wouldn’t grow olives in order to make oil to boil water to make electricity. It is proving to be very difficult to grow crops primarily for biofuels.

Although making biofuels is very challenging, we are in favor of using it to make jet fuel. 

COST TO MAKE ELECTRICITY (excluding delivery)            

Oil cost per barrel $100 $150 $200 $400
Electricity from oil (kWh) 20 cents 30 cents 40 cents 80 cents
Electricity from geothermal 10 cents 10 cents 10 cents 10 cents
Electricity from biofuel Unproven
technology

Electricity generated by geothermal is stable and low cost. As oil price rises, we here with consistently priced, geothermally produced electricity will become more competitive with the rest of the world. Our standard of living will rise, relative to the rest of the world. Homelessness will decrease, and businesses and jobs will grow.

I traveled to Iceland and personally saw this in action last month. That country is completely free of oil for electrical generation. It uses geothermal and hydro, which results in electricity that costs its people less than 10 cents/kWh. And it exports its cheap electricity in the form of aluminum. This provides its people with hard currency to buy food, which they have a hard time growing there.  

Because Iceland chose a low cost and proven technology as the foundation of its energy program, the country is competitive with the rest of the world, resulting in a high standard of living — in spite of its recent bank meltdown. Iceland is more energy and food secure than we are here in Hawai‘i.

Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi recently declared that geothermal should be the major source of base power for the Big Island, and he signed a Sister-City relationship with Ormoc City, Philippines. Ormoc City, which is similar to the Big Island in economies and population size, generates 707MW from geothermal, while the Big Island generates only 30MW. 

I asked the manager of the Energy Development Corporation, the primary geothermal developer there, how dependable they have been in providing power. He told me they have had zero dependability issues over the years.

Mayor Kenoi is a strong champion of geothermal. He has guts.

We are at a true crossroads in Hawai‘i’s history. The path we are on is increasingly unsafe. An alternate path, which includes a prominent role for geothermal, will allow us to dodge the oil bullet and lead us to economic prosperity. If we all work together, we can take that path.

In modern Hawaiian history, the economy has taken, taken, taken and the culture has given, given, given. We have a unique opportunity now, if we use geothermal to produce low cost electricity, for the economy to give and the culture to receive. Under these conditions, the spirit of aloha can thrive.

But time is not on our side and change must happen soon. The folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder will be the first to get their lights turned off. Too often, they will be Hawaiians.

We need to avoid the high-cost electricity solution.

Like my Pop used to say: “Get thousand reasons why ‘No can.’ I only looking for the one reason why, ‘CAN!’”


About the author: Richard Ha owns Hamakua Springs Country Farms, a 600-acre, fee-simple, diversified Big Island farm. He is also chairman of the board of Ku‘oko‘a, which aims to purchase Hawai‘i’s public utility and convert it to geothermal energy. He posts frequently about farming, self-sufficiency in terms of renewable energy, the Islands’ food security and more on his blog.

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