Wave action


POSTED: Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I was a keynote speaker at the 28th International Conference on Ocean, Offshore, and Arctic Engineering, sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, held in Honolulu. I was placed on the conference program between two fossil-fuel proponents. My speech directly followed one by oil executive Robert Ryan (Chevron vice president for global exploration), who focused on oil, oil discovery and oil as the solution for energy needs. I countered his remarks by emphasizing that oil is not the solution for Hawaii.

Hawaii is 93 percent dependent on imported fossil fuel. Each year we export $7 billion to pay for imported oil. This has been calculated to be $2,100 from each woman, man and child — and that's excluding aviation fuel. Hawaii residents pay the highest electricity rates in the nation: over 20 cents per kilowatt hour on Oahu, and higher on some neighbor islands. We are totally vulnerable to price fluctuations in this volatile market and to supply disruptions. We learned in the 1970s: With an oil shortage, California gets what it needs; Hawaii is left in the dark. But we failed to act 30 years ago. Fortunately, or wisely, that has changed.

So what are we, as an isolated island state, doing about this energy crisis? The state and the U.S. Department of Energy have entered a partnership to develop Hawaii's natural sources of energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. Called the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, the goals are to achieve 70 percent clean energy by the year 2030. Forty percent of this will come from renewable energy, the other 30 percent from efficiency. We can't reach that percentage without wave energy systems being part of the renewable portfolio.

Why should wave energy companies and engineers consider Hawaii? Hawaii's wave climate is one of the best in the world. EPRI, the utility-funded think tank in Palo Alto, Calif., has estimated wave energy converters can provide 100 percent of our neighbor island's needs and 80 percent of Oahu's.

The Hawaiian Islands are effectively volcanic seamounts that rise precipitously from the sea floor. The absence of a continental shelf means that wave energy arrives in island waters undiminished, that waves literally slam into our coastline going full speed. With this constant, reliable wave climate and 24-hour forecasts available from NOAA, wave energy becomes in essence a “;firm”; power source for utilities.

Another major advantage is that, due to Hawaii's underwater topography, the open ocean locations suitable for wave energy conversion occur from shore out to 3 miles from the coastline. This cuts down on the length of cable needed to transmit power to stations on shore, which in turn decreases project costs significantly.

After Congress passed the “;Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,”; I saw that the act contained grant funding for National Marine Renewable Test Centers and encouraged the University of Hawaii to apply. The School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology took the lead and was awarded a grant and designated as one of only two National Marine Renewable Test Centers, with a $1.2 million per year federal grant and a five-year designation, enabling it to study and implement wave energy systems in Hawaii's seas.

At the Legislature, I co-sponsored two key renewable energy bills: House Bill 1271 places the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative's provisions into law, and funds an energy program administrator plus seven planning and renewable energy positions; it mandates we achieve 70 percent clean energy by 2030.

House Bill 1464, among other things, directs the state energy resources coordinator to identify geographic areas containing renewable energy resources, which include areas suitable for wave, and to designate these areas as renewable energy zones.

Our island state provides the perfect environment in which to develop the wave energy systems that will become the industry standards in this emerging sector of renewable energy. We have federal financial support and involvement; we have support from the Legislature and administration; and we have cooperation from the major utility, Hawaiian Electric Co.

There's been a groundswell of support for wave energy in the past year — it's high time Hawaii rides that wave.


Cynthia Thielen represents state House District 50 (Kailua-Kaneohe Bay). She wrote this commentary for the Star-Bulletin.