This fall, Oahu is poised to be the first place in the United States where electricity generated by ocean waves is connected to a power grid — a milestone in the budding wave energy industry, officials say.
Sometime in September, private firm Northwest Energy Innovations, with backing from the Navy and the University of Hawaii, is slated to start testing its prototype Azura device in waters a kilometer offshore from Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay.
It's not the first time a company has tested pioneering wave-energy technologies in those waters, a spot known as the Wave Energy Test Site, or WETS. But it's the first time that electricity generated there will be transmitted back to the base's grid via cable, officials say.
That base grid, in turn, is connected to Oahu's islandwide power grid used by energy customers. The Azura prototype could produce up to 20 kilowatts in peak wave conditions — enough to power just several houses, UH specialists say. But at this early stage, what's key is that any wave-generated produced electricity is entering a U.S. grid at all, they add.
"It's a relatively small … but important step" in the nascent wave energy industry, said Patrick Cross, senior project specialist at UH-Manoa's Hawaii Natural Energy Institute.
The push to use ocean waves as a viable renewable energy source is about 30 years behind the wind power industry, and it still hasn't been commercialized anywhere in the world, said Steve Kopf, founder and senior partner with Northwest Energy Innovations.
"The name of the game right now is validating that your technology has the potential to provide cost-effective commercial power," Kopf said. "Nobody's quite there yet on wave, but we're chipping away at it. We believe we can get there" — where it's competitive with other renewable-energy sources.
Efforts to develop wave energy technology are at such an early stage that companies must still rely heavily on outside investment, and they're experimenting with "wildly different approaches" to find the best way to convert the sea's natural motion into electricity, Cross said.
Last week UH officials announced that the Navy has provided $9 million to support testing of the industry technology at WETS.
The Navy dollars will be directed to the Applied Research Laboratory, a university-affiliated research center run by the Navy and UH which has been met with sharp resistance by some of the school's students and faculty, starting with campus sit-ins to protest the idea in 2005.
Critics of the venture are concerned about the potential for classified weapons research and a shift away from core values, while proponents have argued that a university-affiliated research center would bring millions in research funding and prestige to the school.
The wave-energy funds will help the UH Natural Energy Institute survey WETS with divers and remote-operated vehicles, as well as to monitor local wave conditions and measure the energy produced by the private-sector devices tested there, Cross said. The institute will further study any effects from noise there or other potential environmental impacts, he added.
Meanwhile the Natural Energy Institute will run its own tests to confirm that Azura works as predicted in the firm's computer simulations, Kopf said.
The 50-foot-long device aims to harness power from the heave (up-and-down motion) and pitch (forward push) of waves far enough offshore that they don't break. If the tests go well, the company aims to test larger, more cost-effective models in deeper waters offshore at two more moorings being created within WETS.
The company has an agreement in place with Hawaiian Electric Co. for its wave electricity to enter the grid, Kopf said. It will then join test sites in Portugal, England and Scotland where electricity connects to local grids from wave test sites, he added.
In 2015 and 2016 up to four other companies could test their approaches to converting waves into electricity at the Oahu site, largely using millions of dollars of funding from the Navy and U.S. Department of Energy, Cross said.
"There are so many radically different approaches to how to do it," Cross said. "In the big picture of things, it's yet another renewable energy source. The potential worldwide for wave energy to meet the needs of communities is huge. However, there are enormous challenges as well."
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