Hawaiian Wave Power Project Making A Splash!

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) announced in May 2014 that it will allocate $10 million in wave power projects at Hawaii’s Kaneohe Bay.

This is one of the most exciting energy projects currently underway in the United States, especially since wave energy is still a fledgling technology. The data collected from Kaneohe Bay will have huge implications for tidal energy potential and economic viability, and perhaps most importantly: impacts on local wildlife and habitats.  This information can be used to develop more tidal energy projects all over the world, so I can’t wait to see the results!

Hawaii’s wave energy potential is extremely high, as the map below illustrates.  In fact, the wave power density in Hawaii is among the highest in the world, which makes it ideal for testing wave energy installations.  A small wave energy converter (WEC) has already been tested for almost ten years in shallow waters near Kaneohe’s Marine Corps Base, but that installation only generates about 20kW to 40kW of power.  With this funding from the DOE, the Navy will test a larger WEC at a depth of 60-80 meters underwater, which provides the perfect conditions for grid-scale energy generation.

Hawaii wave power3

Of course, after the design of the WEC is complete, the Navy will need to deal with environmental permits and constructing the unit.  While Hawaii is rich with wave power, it is also rich with wildlife, and the environment will need diligent consideration throughout the term of this project.

Because the ecosystem of Hawaii is so unique and fragile, clean energy is probably even more important for the islands than it is for the continental U.S.  Environmental disturbances here are likely to affect dozens of endangered species.  The ocean surrounding the Hawaiian archipelago is critical habitat for many threatened and endangered animals, including migrating humpback whales.

In order to determine whether or not WEC technology can be installed in Hawaii without adverse effects on the environment and wildlife, the project needs to assess what animal life is currently in the area and how it might react to the presence of the WEC structures.


Endangered Marine Life

Hawksbill Turtle

Hawksbill Turtle

Three species of concern that inhabit the test area are the endangered hawksbill turtle, humpback whale, and Hawaiian monk seal.

The large WEC will be designed to minimize any physical threats to wildlife, just as the present wave power installation is constructed.  Per the Navy’s environmental impact statement, the design of the current WEC provides no suitable habitat or resting spots for the hawksbill or monk seal, nor is it an entanglement or entrapment hazard.  This means the animals’ space is likely unharmed.

Even if physical alterations to marine habitat are mitigated, there are still questions surrounding the effect of noise pollution and electromagnetic currents emitted by WECs.

The Hawaiian monk seal is the official state mammal of Hawaii.  They are extremely endangered, with population of only around 1000 individuals.

The Hawaiian monk seal is the official state mammal of Hawaii. They are extremely endangered, with a population of only around 1000 individuals remaining.

The noise emitted by the wave power installations has been compared to shipping vessels or seismic testing.  Sound and its impact on marine life is still being studied in the scientific community, but there is some evidence that fish and marine mammals do hear noise from WECs. Whether or not the noise actually bothers the animals is still unclear.  Whales and dolphins use sonar to navigate their environments, so additional noise may interfere with their migration habits and even hunting activity.  The Kanehoe Bay project can provide us with valuable insight to any behavior changes in marine life as a response to the presence of WECs.  This data can either confirm the safety of tidal energy projects or give us information on how to mitigate risk to these important species as tidal energy technology develops.

Humpback whales migrate to warm Hawaiian waters in the winter to breed.

Humpback whales migrate to warm Hawaiian waters in the winter to breed.

Even if this project demonstrates an effect on marine life, it is worth continuing investment in wave energy until it is viable and safe for ocean animals.  Science confirms that fossil fuels are an environmental hazard, so we know for a fact their continued use is harmful to all life.  Carbon emissions are the primary cause of devastating ocean acidification, and oil and chemical spills often desecrate marine habitats.  Areas of the ocean damaged by the Deepwater Horizon spill, for example, are still not recovered, and the fishing and tourism economies of coastal towns suffer as a result.  Both environmentalists and advocates for job creation and economic improvement should be concerned.  We need to continue to advocate ocean energy, and the Department of Energy’s funding for Kaneohe Bay will, hopefully, set an example for more projects to come.



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