In the waters off the coast of Hawaii, a tall buoy bobs and sways in the water, using the rise and fall of the waves to generate electricity.
The current travels through an undersea cable for a mile to a military base, where it feeds into Oahu’s power grid — the first wave-produced electricity to go online in the U.S.
By some estimates, the ocean’s endless motion packs enough power to meet a quarter of America’s energy needs and dramatically reduce the nation’s reliance on oil, gas and coal. But wave energy technology lags well behind wind and solar power, with important technical hurdles still to be overcome.
To that end, the Navy has established a test site in Hawaii, with hopes the technology can someday be used to produce clean, renewable power for offshore fueling stations for the fleet and provide electricity to coastal communities in fuel-starved places around the world.
“More power from more places translates to a more agile, more flexible, more capable force,” Joseph Bryan, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, said during an event at the site. “So we’re always looking for new ways to power the mission.”
Hawaii would seem a natural site for such technology. As any surfer can tell you, it is blessed with powerful waves. The island state also has the nation’s highest electricity costs — largely because of its heavy reliance on oil delivered by sea — and has a legislative mandate to get 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2045.
Still, it could be five to 10 years before wave energy technology can provide an affordable alternative to fossil fuels, experts say.
For one thing, developers are still working to come up with the best design. Some buoys capture the up-and-down motion of the waves, while others exploit the side-to-side movement. Industry experts say a machine that uses all the ocean’s movements is most likely to succeed.
Also, the machinery has to be able to withstand powerful storms, the constant pounding of the seas and the corrosive effects of saltwater.
“You’ve got to design something that can stay in the water for a long time but be able to survive,” said Patrick Cross, specialist at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which helps run the test site.
The U.S. has set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by one-third from 2005 levels by 2030, and many states are seeking to develop more renewable energy in the coming decades.
Jose Zayas, a director of the Wind and Water Power Technologies Office at the U.S. Energy Department, which helps fund the Hawaii site, said the United States could get 20 to 28 percent of its energy needs from waves without encroaching on sensitive waters such as marine preserves.
“When you think about all of the states that have water along their coasts … there’s quite a bit of wave energy potential,” he said.
Wave energy technology is at about the same stage as the solar and wind industries were in the 1980s. Both received substantial government investment and tax credits that helped them become energy sources cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels.
But while the U.S. government and military have put about $334 million into marine energy research over the past decade, Britain and the rest of Europe have invested more than $1 billion, according to the Marine Energy Council, a trade group.
“We’re about, I’d say, a decade behind the Europeans,” said Alexandra De Visser, the Navy’s Hawaii test site project manager.
The European Marine Energy Centre in Scotland, for example, has 14 grid-connected berths that have housed dozens of wave and tidal energy devices from around the world over the past 13 years, and Wave Hub in England has several such berths. China, too, has been building and testing dozens of units at sea.
Though small in scale, the test project near Kaneohe Bay represents the vanguard of U.S. wave energy development. It consists of two buoys anchored a half-mile to a mile offshore.
One of them, the Azura, which extends 12 feet above the surface and 50 feet below, converts the waves’ vertical and horizontal movements into up to 18 kilowatts of electricity, enough for about a dozen homes. The company working with the Navy, Northwest Energy Innovations of Portland, Oregon, plans a version that can generate at least 500 kilowatts, or enough to power hundreds of homes.
A Norwegian company developed the other buoy, a 50-foot-wide, doughnut-shaped device called the Lifesaver. Cables anchor the 3-foot-tall ring to the ocean floor. When the sea wobbles the buoy, the cables move, turning a generator’s wheels. It produces an average of 4 kilowatts.
Test sites run by other researchers are being planned or expanded in Oregon and California. One of them, Cal Wave, run by California Polytechnic State University, hopes to provide utility-scale power to Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The Hawaii buoys are barely noticeable from shore, but developers envision dozens of machines working at once, an idea that could run into the same opposition wind turbines have faced from environmentalists, tourist groups and others.
“Nobody wants to look out and see wind turbines or wave machines off the coast,” said Steve Kopf, CEO of Northwest Energy Innovations.
Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.
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There are very big downsides to wave energy generators such as negatively impacting normal swimming and migration pattersn for whales, dolphins, etc. Very large animals or those that use sonar would be totally skrewed up by hundreds of these wave generators along Hawaii’s coast. Also “putting 200 machines on the North Shore of Oahu within a mile or two off the coast” would seriously alter and reduce the surfable waves that break on the north shore that is world famous for its surfing spots. Wave energy generator around Hawaii is NOT good fit. Fully exploit home PV electrical generation and storage capability such as flywheels or lithium storage FIRST. Also geothermal should have been fully developed on the big island however after many decades the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at UH still cannot provide reliable geothermal energy on a commercial scale. Not a nice thing to say but the HNEI is pathetic that they have failed with geothermal energy on the big island and now they want to destroy surfable waves in Hawaii and mess up whale or dolphin migration around Hawaii with the idea of hundreds or thousands of wave generators that have massive number of cables strung from the ocean floor to the surface with large bobbing pontoon like structures. The waters off of Britain, Norway and other European beaches that have wave energy generators along their freezing North Atlantic are not known for surfing, whale migration, rare turtles and sea lions.
I think it’s a great first step–sure there are obstacles–think Wright Brothers!!! Gotta start somewhere!!!
Right, we need to do studies to show just how feasible wave energy is. We’re behind the Europeans by 10 years.
Agree, Hawaii is not the best place for these given our wonderful and vibrant sea life. They should have experimented in the cesspool waters of the Gulf of Mexico where most of the sea life is already contaminated beyond any safe human consumption from all the chemical waste from Mexico on top of the countless oil spills by the oil rigs.
To add insult to injury these hLIARy supporting Democrat con-artists in office tell us they need to be 100% reliant from renewables while they outright refuse any additional solar installations to connect to the grid. I have neighbors that had solar installed 2 years ago and HECO has yet to allow them to connect or even approve their application!!!
Well, if you really have a hankerin’ to put it to the “hLIARy supporting Democrat con-artists”, why would someone of your political persuasion even want to be connected to the grid anyway?
All you need is, say, 20 kW worth of panels (and sufficient storage capacity) and you’ll be able to declare your own commonwealth. Don’t have the money for it right now? “Whose issue is that?” John Galt would sneer.
I already am on solar and have been for years and I’ll break 100% even on it by the end of next year. I don’t have a battery array since I’m still waiting for prices to come down or until HECO gives me the middle finger one day and kills the net-metering program. My whole point is that there are literally thousands of homes on the waiting list and countless more that would love to connect to the grid and feed it but they simply can’t due to HECO not approving additional connections. The predominately Democrat crooks in office have the audacity to tell us that we should go 100% renewable, then they shell out millions on research projects that will do nothing but waste our tax dollars and harm the environment while giving the middle finger to solutions already in place that would help them achieve their goals sooner.
If what you are saying is true that your neighbor had their system installed two years ago and still haven’t received HECO approval they got screwed by a republican who only cared about the money and not the customer.
Who is the Republican do you speak of? Your comment sounds like a bitter rant more than anything.
dragon, your Trump would have said take your guns down to HECO and demand to be put on the grid now right?
Ohh, please, Trump is a shock jock. He mastered the art of getting attention and stirring controversy. And even if he did make such a comment one day, I would blow it off as a joke. He’s a business man, not a political slime like lying hiLIARy. We are all aware of all those that committed suicide during the first Clinton presidency. Let’s see how many more will commit suicide if hiLIARy makes it into the White House. So in the end you tell me who you would trust more.
Meanwhile, Iceland has the cleanest and cheapest energy on the planet because they use their unlimited supply of Geothermal energy to produce electricity. Unfortunately, Hawaii has allowed the environmental Nazis to prevent us from tapping into this unlimited resource, except for a single token facility.
Great idea! Hope in the near future the problems and obstacles to generate electricity from the ocean are solve!
DUMB, STUPID, IDIOTS, and better yet if HAWAII depends on TOURISM as a main source of revenue, our government officials are loosing site and loosing quickly……. RAIL, WINDMILLS and now this will quickly loose our beauty….what a dumb idea
I have 29 solar panels on my roof, they work great and I’m a big fan of alternate forms of energy production. My break even point is only a few years away. This article, and many like it never cite or discuss the anticipated kilowatt per hour hour. How can a break even point be evaluated without this important information?
Grew up in Hawaii and in the ocean. I’m against this type of new ocean technology. I’d be against nuclear power plants as well.
Where do you get your power?
ready2go…Seriously what planet do you live on? I must agree with wave1 to ask…where do you get your power from? What you and others don’t realize is that we have at any one time 5-10 nuclear reactors operate in Hawaii and have been for decades. Quick answer, Pearl Harbor. I’m glad that you grew up in Hawaii and took part in the ocean activities, but learn to not knock an idea before all the pros/cons/costs are fully realized and explained to you. You read one poorly written article on the Star Advertiser and have come to the conclusion that “this type of new ocean technology” goes against everything you hold dear? Come on, go troll somewhere else.
Are you referring to nuclear subs/ships or actual nuclear power plants that feed into the grid?
As far as the public is aware, there are none on the islands. Source…
Has anyone noticed how much $$$$ big oil/gas/coal has put into political commercials?
They see the hand writing on the wall and are doing their best to keep Republicans in power especially Trump as president, because the Republicans are the one’s who will keep the status quo with fossil fuels and pollution.
Why not have the members of out hefty incarcerated population turn a series of turbines like old mill grinding wheels.
With their energy and fitness they can be part of their rehab to contribute meanfully back to society. In shifts working out 24/7 that’s a sizable production unit. (Might have to double up when the E Chair in use).
Won’t happen even if they threatened to follow North Korea’s energy plan to just turn the power off at night and everyone goes to sleep at the same time as the chickens.
A nice idea though, you could get an alternator and hook it up to your bike and store the power in 12v car batteries with a charger for your own use later, but don’t count the masses to join in the fun.