Editorial: Gateway Center a Showpiece of NELHA Incompetence

posted in: August 2006, Editorial | 0

The Gateway Energy Center at Keahole is Hawai`i’s Potemkin Village for energy conservation. It has been outfitted with the latest, spiffiest (and costliest) technologies in the realm of energy efficiency and self-reliance. It has been trumpeted as a model for all that we, as a society, should strive for as we try to wean ourselves of fossil fuels and cut down on our use of products derived from them.

But it’s not so much a showpiece as just show.

And, at $600 a square foot, a pretty expensive show at that.

Here’s a brief sketch of its history: Congress, through the intercession of Senator Inouye, showered the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai`i Authority with earmarked funds to develop a center that would demonstrate energy-efficient technologies and house laboratories that would conduct state-of-the-art research in emerging energy technologies (hydrogen, fuel-cells, photovoltaics, and the like).

No expense was spared in designing and building structures that would win a “Platinum” rating from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. But because of expenditures related to chasing the platinum medallion, other corners had to be cut — and now have to be pasted back on to make the buildings work as they were designed. In the meantime, the Gateway Center eats up energy at more than three times the forecast rate, at a cost of upwards of $1500 a month.

Even if the buildings were to live up to their billing, so long as they remain empty and unused, they’re a waste – of public funds, of the materials that went into their construction, and of the electricity they use. Like a car with terrific fuel efficiency that never leaves the garage, they exist, for now, just for show.

[b]Led Astray[/b]
Where did the NELHA go wrong? When it was established more than three decades ago, it was supposed to be a center where cutting-edge research would be done on how to use the temperature difference between deep seawater (very cold) and shallow seawater (much warmer) to drive systems that would create electricity. The federal government underwrote most of those Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion projects until the 1990s, when the Department of Energy determined that OTEC was no longer an experimental technology.

To support OTEC experiments, the state had invested heavily in the pumps and plumbing needed to deliver vast quantities of ocean water to shore. Piggybacking on the OTEC infrastructure, a complex of aquaculture enterprises grew up in the immediate vicinity of NELHA.

In the early part of this decade, the deep seawater bottlers started moving in, capitalizing on the Asian fad for drinking desalinated seawater and the availability of abundant supplies of raw product. The bottlers are viewed by NELHA’s administrator and its board of directors as a herd of cash cows whose importance to the agency’s bottom line grows in importance as its share of the state’s general funds shrinks. No one seems to have considered the trade-offs involved in slaking status-conscious Japan’s thirst for conspicuously expensive beverages. The one administrator who did protest was drummed out for his efforts.

But the bottlers have a dark side: they use electricity at a prodigious clip; they sprawl over acres of land (and have options to use even more vacant acreage), and thus preclude other, potentially more energy-friendly industries from moving in; and, certainly not least, their trucks, carrying hundreds of thousands of bottles of water a day to Kawaihae, add to the traffic on Queen Ka`ahumanu Highway, already one of the Big Island’s most congested roads.

[b]Exit Strategy[/b]
NELHA’s board of directors clearly regards its charge these days as one of fostering the growth of business. Its chief executive officer is a businessman; of its members who do not represent sister state agencies, all represent business interests. Since Tom Daniel was fired, it has had no one on its staff qualified to evaluate or supervise research proposed for the site.

The bollixed job of the Gateway Center reflects this lack of scientific expertise, as does the fact that research has languished. The prospective use of the Gateway Center laboratory by the Hawai`i Natural Energy Institute does not portend a renaissance of science at NELHA so much as it speaks to the political pressure exerted on HNEI to move into the facility and thereby justify its existence.

Yet Hawai`i desperately needs some agency to do what NELHA was supposed to. Even though oil prices are rising to undreamt-of heights, our consumption shows no sign of slowing. As one of the states most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming and sea-level rise, Hawai`i should take a leading role in efforts to reduce fossil-fuel use.

NELHA, as it is constituted now, is utterly incapable of delivering on these tasks. Instead of fostering energy independence, it curries favor with enterprises that are not only frivolous, but also have voracious energy appetites.

As a first step in getting NELHA back on track, the Legislature should take a close look at the way in which taxpayer resources and public lands have been and are being managed. Although NELHA management has promised a change in its approach to leasing land and has threatened to ban further options, those reforms have not yet been implemented and, in any event, would not address the more fundamental issue of a disconnect between NELHA’s mission (as stated in its very name) and its present practice of being little more than rental agent for the state. (In this regard, one can only lament the decision, reported elsewhere in this issue, of the Board of Land and Natural Resources to cede to NELHA its oversight role on issuance of subleases.)

When the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai`i was established, a clear distinction existed between the central purpose of research (which occurred in the core research area, run by NELH) and the development of piggyback enterprises (which were located mostly in the adjoining Hawai`i Ocean Science and Technology park, managed by the state High-Tech Development Corporation). The two functions were merged in 1990, when NELHA was formed.

It’s time for the state to reaffirm its serious commitment to the purposes for which NELH was established. If that means reorganizing NELHA yet again, giving its research mission to the Hawai`i Natural Energy Institute and its business development arm back to the High-Tech Development Corporation, so be it.

However it happens, NELHA’s got to go.

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 17, Number 2 August 2006