For Hawai’i, wave energy’s a natural – Honolulu Advertiser 6-14-09


Think Tech by Jay Fidell

Hawai’i’s wave energy champion, Rep. Cynthia Thielen, is not going to the wave energy conference in Maine this summer. Instead, she’s going to a bigger one in Sweden. These conferences are proliferating.

Some say wave energy will overtake biodiesel, wind and solar because it is the best concentrator of solar energy, unlimited in supply and environmentally benign. Others, including Roger Davis at SOEST, question sustainability, and the Obama administration recently cut R&D funding. So what will wave energy be in the race against oil — dark horse or dead end?


Wave energy devices are actively harvesting off Ireland, Scotland, Denmark and Portugal. Israeli companies are selling wave technology in China. Meanwhile, the U.S. is taking baby steps on the New England shelf.

Europe has worked out the mapping and permitting and generously supports wave energy. Congress and the New England states are mapping wave energy zones, but so far there are no commercial uses in this country.

Hawai’i has set energy goals without funding wave energy, even though it is a clear contender. DLNR already leases ocean areas, and under new legislation DBEDT’s energy coordinator Josh Strickler will soon start mapping our zones.

Good fit for isles

Wave energy devices could be deployed around our islands in environmentally acceptable ways and places. We need to find technologies that are best for Hawaiian waters, which are different than waters off the Mainland and Europe: Northeasterly trades blow year round, creating rough seas augmented by winter swells. Our islands are volcanic seamounts with no continental shelf. Waves arrive undiminished, and wave energy devices can be deployed within our three-mile limit, reducing the cost of the cable to shore.

Some options

According to Richard Seymour at Scripps, wave energy tends to bring out inventors, and they are out in droves. Here are some devices being developed:

In Power Buoy converters, the water drives a turbine inside the buoy. They are being tested in Oregon. PGE has contracted for a cluster off Eureka, the first in the U.S. This will scale up to 100 megawatts for 75,000 homes.

Wave Dragons are platforms that catch waves in shallow reservoirs on deck. When water flows back out it drives a turbine. These operate in Denmark.

Snakes, called Pelamis (sea snake) attenuators, are long multisection cylinders whose undulations drive turbines. These operate in Portugal.

The blowhole, an oscillating water column, is anchored where waves pound the shoreline in a narrow tidal range. It runs the water out through a turbine and blowhole. They operate in Scotland. How about East O’ahu?

Don’t forget vortex hydro energy. Vortices occur when water flows past submerged objects. The University of Michigan has developed a device that harvests currents below 2 knots, useful in Hawai’i’s slower currents.


Wave energy devices have maintenance issues, including corrosion and damage from big waves and storms, and the risk of damage and liability when they get loose or need to be brought back for repair or replacement.

Materials science and nanotech can provide obvious benefits. If Oceanit can design a super strong surfboard, why can’t we also invent new materials for wave energy devices?

Son-of-221 bill

The Department of Energy designated the University of Hawai’i as one of two Marine Renewable Test Centers, and wave energy at SOEST and HNEI will be funded for five years. That’s great. Maybe we can also get some of that elusive stimulus money.

Hawai’i needs to understand that capital can go anywhere. To encourage startups and incentivize investors, we need a son-of-221 bill in the 2010 session. Development requires funding.

an energy jackpot

Australia’s Oceanlinx is building a $20 million 2.7 MW wave energy cluster off Maui’s Pauwela Point. It hopes to supply Maui Electric Co. by December. Sydney Chow is testing devices off Coconut Island. The Marines are testing devices in Kane’ohe Bay. Navatek recently patented a wave energy converter.

Given the lack of R&D funding, there is no broad agreement about the future of wave energy, but with our easy access to the ocean and the efficiency of the new technologies, we can make wave energy a major part of our portfolio.

It’s much too early to limit ourselves to biodiesel, wind and solar. We must keep our confidence high, our options open, our entrepreneurs funded and our engineers interested. If we play it right, we can harvest wave energy for Hawai’i and export technology to the world. This dark horse can be an energy jackpot.

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