The military and civilian researchers in Hawaii have stepped up efforts to harness the powerful waves and ocean currents off Oahu as a source of renewable energy.
The Navy recently gave an infusion of $6 million to continue research into the viability of wave energy that’s been taking place near Marine Corps Base Hawaii since the early 2000s.
The focus is on the Navy’s Wave Energy Test Site in the waters near the Marine base in Kaneohe — the only grid-connected wave energy testing site in the United States.
Hawaii — the nation’s most petroleum-dependent state — is exploring wave energy as a possible source to help meet its goal to rely on 100% renewable energy by 2045. The military is looking for ways to more efficiently fuel forces increasingly focused on the Pacific as it battles China for influence.
However, it’s not clear how quickly wave energy could be available for practical uses since the ocean offers as many hurdles as possibilities.
“It’s one of those technologies that’s been ‘right around the corner’ for some years,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Honolulu-based Blue Planet Foundation.
The $6 million went to the Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, which is working with the university’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and the military to support testing through 2024 on how wave energy converters could provide power on and off the grid.
“We’ve been able to grow our team a little bit. We have a number of graduate students now working on various aspects of wave energy,” said Pat Cross, a research specialist at HNEI. “The Navy’s investment has helped immensely.”
About half of the latest funding will go toward testing off-grid wave energy converters that would generate and store power. They operate at a smaller scale and could see practical applications sooner.
Cross said that they could be used for powering vessels and drones at sea for ocean research, desalination technology or even aquaculture. “These funds allow us to kind of get into internally within our team here at UH, to get into some of these areas,” he said.
Cross said that Hawaii’s late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye played a key role in setting up the Navy’s test site. The Navy set up the test site in partnership with Ocean Power Technologies, which has used the site to test various devices.
UH researchers became involved in 2008 after the university received Department of Energy funding. They began receiving Navy funding in 2014.
The search for cleaner and renewable energy has found new urgency as heat waves and wildfires rage around the globe.
Earlier this month the United Nations released a report warning that a failure to immediately work to reduce carbon emissions would lead to “irreversible” environmental and climate consequences that could threaten human civilization.
Putting wave energy systems in place can be a challenge. They need to be in strong seas, which poses major logistical problems. And even when they can be installed and kept in place, the salt water can rust and corrode the machines.
“The ocean is notorious for eating everything,” Mikulina said. “There’s a reason why we have so much solar in Hawaii and only a single wave energy site.”
Cross said teams work to engineer devices to balance durability, size and actual ability to generate power — and sometimes those demands conflict.
“That’s the crux of the whole thing,” said Cross. “By definition, you want to put these in dynamic environments where there’s substantial waves, and that makes it hard.”
Research into wave power is relatively new. While generally regarded as a clean source of energy, concerns have been raised about possible unintended environmental consequences.
The UH team has been collecting data on noise and acoustics to determine whether they could be disruptive to marine life, Cross said. “It’s one of the important things that we’re charged by the Navy with doing,” he said.
“This is just my opinion, but the adverse effects of not pursuing wave energy, such as ocean acidification and climate change, outweigh what so far we see as minimal effects of deploying these things,” he added.
Mikulina ultimately sees promise in the potential of wave energy if it can be better developed for widespread use. “If you have a bunch of free energy and a bunch of free water — that’s a match made in heaven,” he explained.
The military has long had an interest of its own in renewable energy, but it has a spotty environmental track record. The military currently burns more fuel than some entire countries and is one of the world’s top carbon emitters.
Capt. Eric Abrams, a spokesman for Marine Corps Base Hawaii, said that personnel at the base have worked closely with the UH researchers.
The Marine Corps ultimately hopes that research at the site will “create a renewable energy economy that will provide significant environmental and societal benefits and offer a secure energy supply.”
But it’s not just environmental concerns that have gained the military’s attention.
Oahu is the home of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, which conducts frequent operations around the region.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seriously disrupted global supply chains. Most of Hawaii’s power grid, which is shared by civilians and the military, is largely dependent on imported foreign oil.
For the U.S. military, the possibility of supply chain disruptions is a major concern. During wartime, the ability to resupply and replenish forces can quickly become a life or death concern.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine general, famously said renewable sources could “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”
The Wave Energy Test Site is managed by the Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center based at Port Hueneme, California, which looks at the development of technologies to support bases and operations overseas.
The WETS system has been connected to Hawaii’s grid and so far has not been used to power military bases on Oahu. But that’s changing.
“Next year the WETS team will be deploying the largest WEC in the world with potential to deliver significant energy to the MCBH grid,” said Abrams.
Nathan Sinclair, the Navy’s WETS project manager, said in an email that the military is preparing to conduct infrastructure testing as early as this fall. But the military is also interested in taking this technology well beyond bases in Hawaii.
Military researchers are particularly interested in the potential of smaller, off-grid devices.
“While feeding wave energy to onshore base utility grids has yet to come to fruition, wave power may be the technical and cost-effective solution for providing power in remote ocean locations, for persistent surveillance, and unmanned underwater vehicle charging,” said Sinclair.
The Marine Corps is in the midst of a major effort of transforming itself into a leaner force focused on island and coastal fighting. Commanders envision Marines setting up remote operating bases with drones and anti-ship missiles.
Mikulina said off-grid wave energy “has obvious military applications but also pretty significant other applications,” including the potential to produce hydrogen that could be used for powering cars and other machines on land.
“There is immense power in the waves that surround Hawaii and around the world,” Mikulina said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.