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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Na­­vy Looks to the Seas for Clean Energy

By Tina Casey

The U.S. Navy is ramping up its efforts to harvest energy from the ocean with a new research project slated for its Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii wave power testing facility. The new project promises to open up a raft of new opportunities for companies that are developing ocean power technologies, because it is driven by private sector innovation rather than deploying in-house research.

The current phase, which the Navy is funding from the Department of Energy grants, involves selecting contractors that will deploy buoys designed to capture energy from the motion of ocean waves and convert it to electricity.

A brief history of federal funding for ocean energy

Though the Navy’s alternative energy programs under President Obama are encountering criticism from certain legislators, the Kaneohe Bay facility is a bipartisan operation that predates the Obama Administration. It was constructed by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) in 2003, back when President Bush was Commander-in-Chief.

By June 2004, a demonstration-scale wave energy buoy was deployed at the Wave Energy Test Site under an ongoing research project cosponsored by the Navy and the University of Hawaii’s National Marine Renewable Energy Center.

The buoy, developed by the company Ocean Power Technologies, is a 40 kilowatt device situated in waters about 100 feet deep. It operates by the up-and-down motion of waves, which drives an onboard generator. The electricity is transmitted to shore by cable.

Expanding the Navy's ocean energy research

The new project aims to develop wave energy buoys with a commercial scale capacity in the range of 300 to 500 kilowatts. These larger buoys will be positioned at greater depths and will require a new permitting process, as well as re-equipping the test center with new moorings and cables.

At a recent NAVFAC conference introducing new ocean energy technology from dozens of contractors that are vying for inclusion in the project, NAVFAC Pacific Vice Commander Capt. Pete Lynch explained:

The Navy is committed to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and is leading the way on the development of viable, renewable energy sources. NAVFAC Pacific is working on ways to make the Navy's shore infrastructure more energy independent and strengthen our energy security position. The ocean is an untapped resource and possible source of renewable energy.

An ocean power showcase for private sector innovators

Contractors selected for the project will have to arrange their own financing for the buoys, but it is still attracting a high level of interest from the private sector due to the potential for future Department of Defense contracts for Navy bases worldwide. Participating contractors will also be spared the expense of having to build or lease their own test facility.

The test facility is already grid-connected, and the new cables and moorings are expected to be in place by the end of 2012. The goal is to supply renewable wave energy to a nearby U.S. Marine Corps base by 2014.

Hawaii as test case for alternative energy transition

Due to its lack of fossil fuel resources and the expense of transporting fuels over long distances, Hawaii suffers from chronically high energy prices and it is emerging as sort of national canary in the coal mine for the consequences of over-dependence on fossil fuels. On the plus side, Hawaii is rapidly becoming a premier showcase for new alternative energy and energy efficiency technologies through its Clean Energy Initiative, which launched in partnership with the Department of Energy in the final year of the Bush Administration.

The Department of Defense, which is the single largest consumer of energy in Hawaii, has contributed to the effort with a number of projects that include a large rooftop solar array at the Navy base in Pearl Harbor and a new hydrogen fuel cell demonstration fleet in partnership with GM.

GM has become a favorite target of conservative pundits (think Chevy Volt), but those who are looking around for a nice stone to throw at the Obama Administration's fuel cell research might want to think twice: the Department of Defense’s interest in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles includes a Bush-era hydrogen production and fueling station in Hawaii that opened in 2006.

Image: Some rights reserved by rocketvox.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey