Island style ingenuity

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion plant

The Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion plant at the HOST park in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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Just off of the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, on the western coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i, there is a technology park that appears to be an ordinary industrial complex. But it is actually something exciting and quite possibly revolutionary. It is the Hawai’i Ocean Science and Technology Park.

Operated by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai’i Authority (NELHA), the park is home to about 40 individual businesses involved in sustainable development projects that benefit both the Hawaiian and global economies. There is a great diversity of research and industry, including renewable energy development, aquaculture, and biofuel development with microalgae. All are supported by this park, which is appropriately nicknamed HOST.

Unlike a normal technology park, in which industries function independently of each other and of the environment around them, this park is more of a cohesive natural system. In the vein of biomimicry, the industries function like members of an ecosystem, bound by their commitment to sustainable economic development and their reliance on the water and power provided by NELHA’s unique energy systems.

Powering a technology park with sustainable energy is a challenge, but the park has found a solution using the world’s first successful Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) plant. By harnessing the temperature difference between cold deep and warm shallow ocean water, the plant produces electricity with a series of onshore and offshore systems. Pipelines transport water to each business site, as well, so that they can have warm water for their operations at a fraction of the normal cost and energy.  

With low emissions and a very efficient heating and cooling system, OTEC is a sustainable energy system of the future. It provides constant, steady power around the clock and requires no energy storage. Electricity is produced at a cost of $0.20/kW-hr and could power all of Hawai’i with the construction of more plants. According to Makai Ocean Engineering, the group that maintains HOST’s plant, OTEC is a global resource that has the potential to meet the planet’s electricity needs four times over.

Electricity not delivered to the park by OTEC comes from on-site concentrated solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. Extensive use of solar energy is possible because the site has high insolation and a warm climate year-round. Many clients in the park are able to take advantage of these ideal conditions and the 1.5 megawatts of commercial PV currently installed.

Hawai’i forged a bold and forward-thinking path by creating a park that takes advantage of the island’s exceptional resources but causes the island itself very little harm. As the NELHA website proudly announces, the HOST park grows “sustainable industries using sunshine, seawater and ingenuity.”

There is no one-size-fits-all form of sustainable development; instead, people and institutions in every unique corner of the world should follow the example of Hawai’i and fit their sustainable development goals to their location and their resources. What works for Hawai’i may not work somewhere else, and vice versa, but we can learn from examples of ingenuity and adapt technologies to our own situations.

HOST was the first site able to produce net energy using OTEC technology, and for good reason. Located on the cliffs of Hawai’i’s western coast, this plant is in a niche spot. In locations where the water off the coast is shallow and warm, the energy expended to reach deep waters would be greater than the energy to be gained in the eventual conversion. But on the edge of this island, the swift drop-off of land allows the plant to easily access cold, deep water.

While OTEC is not replicable everywhere, it is still an option for many locations besides Hawai’i. This plant is the largest operational OTEC plant in the world and the first to connect to a U.S. energy grid. If other plants can learn from this example, there may be many more success stories to come.

Innovative enterprises come to the HOST park specifically because it matches their vision and has the qualities they need, like year-round sunshine or easy access to warm sea water. With blue and green logos featuring waves and sea creatures, businesses like BlueOcean Mariculture and KONA Deep would seem out of place anywhere else. The spirit of Hawai’i is even in the company names- one business, Moana Marine Biotech, shares its name with the young Polynesian star of the recent animated Disney film Moana.

Education is another important aspect of NELHA and the HOST park. Middle and high school students interested in science can attend a public charter school in the park called West Hawaii Exploration Academy. A nonprofit called Friends of NELHA provides daily tours of the OTEC plant and various other farms and facilities. By giving tours to school groups, educators, and tourists, the Friends of NELHA ensure that the park’s impacts reach beyond the coasts of Hawai’i.

On my tour in August 2016, I visited the Marine Mammal Center, where Hawai’i’s endangered monk seals are rehabilitated, and the Kanaloa Octopus Farm, the world’s first octopus farm. The brilliance of what I was seeing became very real to me as I drank KONA Deep mineral water and spoke with lead OTEC engineers. When I was squirted with water by a farm-raised octopus, it felt like I could reach out and touch the future with both hands.

As much as we may want to find one, the future of the planet can not depend on one solution. Instead, our sustainable future will be characterized by systems of brilliant innovations that rely on and work with each other. One microalgae farm or solar energy laboratory can not do it alone, but the Hawai’i Ocean Science and Technology park is proof that great feats of sustainability can be accomplished together.


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