Monday, April 12, 2010


GETTING WARMER: Now that the Kaua`i Island Utilities Co-op (KIUC) election is over one of the first issues that the new board may have to grapple with is the price of the electricity that Pacific Light & Power’s (PLP) proposed “solar thermal” power plant sells us.

If the article in the local newspaper this weekend is accurate KIUC’s President and CEO Randy Hee is balking at paying whatever PLP is asking- although apparently no one will say much that is.

Naturally, alternative, carbon-free energy advocates are up in arms and accuse Hee of having no interest in getting off fossil fuels and based on the current foot-dragging Hee and the board it’s no wonder.

Westside activist Bruce Pleas is quoted in the article as saying that paying a small amount more in order to get off oil might be acceptable while many of the comments on the article were typified by the person who said:

All who are not onboard with solar power are basically neanderthals (sic) protecting themselves from extinction, nothing more than that.
Time to step aside all you freaks who want to hamper progress your day is done.

The problem here is that few are recognizing that framing the issue as one of price alone is a Hobson’s Choice at best.

The main “problem” with solar power is the night according to many. Solar Thermal addresses a little of that challenge.

According to PLP’s press release for the project

Solar thermal parabolic trough technology works by precisely arranging mirrors to capture the sun’s heat. These mirrors focus sunlight onto a tube filled with heat transfer fluid, which is passed to a heat exchanger that generates steam to power Rankine and Organic Rankine cycle turbines. In this closed system arrangement, there is no need for new supplies of water, as the water cycle back through the system.

But that doesn’t mean that the generator continues to produce power throughout the night. The release says:

PLP Kauai 1 will include up to 3 hours of heat transfer fluid storage with the flexibility to shift power generation during the day in a manner most valuable to KIUC.

That means that even in the summer it will produce electricity only until about 10 p.m. which, though it gets well into the peak” hours still requires supplementation, especially in the winter when that goes only until 8 p.m..

The question is whether this type of system- where the price per kilowatt to consumers is apparently a lot higher than the cost to produce it- in a “we sell electricity to you” utility model is a better investment overall than facilitating true net-metering for photo-voltaic (PV) systems on people’s roofs.

Hee’s KIUC has been uncompromising on enforcing the cap on net metering where the meter runs backward and forward at the same price. Those slots are all used up so that now new PV system owners buy back their “excess” electricity at a premium, supposedly because of the problems of providing energy when the sun doesn’t shine.

But at the same time KIUC is only too happy to embrace a solar thermal system which, while it provides a few more hours a day of juice still faces the same challenge- and does it at a price that will raise a few eyebrows especially among those that advocate carbon free energy but can’t afford more than the “top rate in the nation” they currently pay.

A $70 million investment plus a goodly premium for “clean energy” is a lot of money to invest in something that really doesn’t help the individual co-op members with their electric bills the way home generation does.

Though plans for a revolving fund loan system to enable home PV systems to be built and paid back over the life of the unit are underway, they won’t fully benefit homeowners unless the rate of buyback is the same as the feed-in- plus a small fixed amount for use of the storage capacity of the grid.

If all we’re getting is that extra three hours of steam heat storage, that capacity doesn’t have to be part of a $70 million project where the cost per kilowatt is outrageous.

Steam and other storage mechanisms currently in use and/or under development can just as easily bring us clean solar that will last 24 hours a day as a solar thermal unit which may be obsolete in a few years. And it can do it in a way that serves the individual consumers rather than investors.

All it takes is a change in the current mindset at KIUC from that “we sell you electricity” investor-owned model to one of a true co-op that serves the needs of the members first.

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