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Surf's up for Hawaii's hydro-power

By Leif Coorlim, CNN
  • CNN producer Leif Coorlim reported from Hawaii on new power buoys
  • Traveled with the U.S. military who are receiving electricity from the new device
  • Journey took CNN crew across the choppy waters to get a close look at the buoy

(CNN) -- Anytime you're assigned to a story in Hawaii, you can expect the next few days around the office to be unpleasant. The chiding is constant. "When did we start getting to pick where we do stories?"

Even when colleagues learn the story is, in fact, legitimate, the quips don't quit.

"You're a pasty-looking guy. Enjoy the sunburn!"

But when things got really bad, I could just close my eyes, block out the barbs and imagine myself far-away on an island beach, knowing that in a few days, I'd be there.

Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii

We arrived at the front gates of Marine Corps Base, Hawaii, early on a Wednesday morning (for the record, it was raining). Major Alan Crouch escorted me and the CNN crew past the armed Marines flanking the entrance. We had traveled thousands of kilometers to see one thing: a big, yellow buoy.

Hearing that may make it seem like my co-workers were right to tease and torment. But actually, this buoy we came to see is unlike any other in the world, and represents some of the latest advancements in the burgeoning field of wave energy.

Video: Harnessing Hawaii's wave power

Ocean Power Technologies (OPT), which makes the buoy, says it was deployed off the Marine Corps base in December. This spring, they're going to connect it to the base's energy grid. When that happens, it will send up to 40 kilowatts of energy back to shore. That's enough energy to power roughly two dozen homes.

But what's really exciting, is the potential it represents.

The company envisions hundreds of buoys, more powerful than this one, all clustered together, producing huge quantities of energy and sending it back to shore. While it's expensive now, many governments around the world are providing funding to ocean energy companies, including OPT, to help get the industry off the ground, drive innovation, and bring costs down.

The investment makes sense. Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface. And since many the world's major cities lie along coastlines and 40 percent of the world's population lives within 100 kilometers of an ocean, its potential benefits are as obvious as they are enormous.

How much potential do you think wave power has? Leave your thoughts in the "Sound off" box at the bottom of the page.

A tour of duty

There was plenty of excitement as we loaded into the Marine vessel and headed out past the breakers.

Major Crouch, playing tour guide, motioned to his left. "You've heard of the TV show, 'Lost'? That's where they film it," he said.

I looked over towards the empty stretch of sand, and instantly recognized the mountains behind it.

"Back in the day, they also filmed part of 'Gilligan's Island' here, too," he added.

The trivia did little to distract us, though, as we made the harrowing trip out to the wave energy buoy. Huge, heaving swells began pummeling our small boat.

The idea that we could one day harness enough energy to power our cities from the movement of waves is beyond exciting.
--Leif Coorlim, CNN

Beads of sweat began forming on my forehead as I gripped for something steady to hold. The boat pressed on, taking each of the Pacific's punches on the chin, like a battered boxer begging for more.

Each passing wave would toss us right one moment and sway us left the next. We rose slowly and slammed down hard. Only the boat's engine belied its struggles. As we went on, the steady drone turned to heavy groans until it grew so loud we couldn't talk to each other. Not that we wanted to.

All in the same boat

Dazed and abused, we arrived at the buoy. Looking at my crew, I could tell photojournalist Styke Dimas and sound-technician Earl Nurse wondered how such a fun-sounding trip to Hawaii, turned into this.

As we stumbled around the deck, Earl implored, "Man, be careful, we could go over trying to do an interview out here."

"Yeah, I know," I replied, as another wave crossed, slamming my torso into one side of the cabin door's frame and then the other.

It didn't help that while we pondered our personal safety, bouncing around the boat like loose change, a half-dozen Marines were all the while gazing out at the ocean all cool as coladas.

The buoy was impressive. Each time it emerged from a passing wave, it displaced hundreds of liters of water, reminding me of humpback whales you sometimes see in the waters around Hawaii that come up to the surface. At 16 meters tall and 4 meters in diameter, the buoy is also roughly the same size as a humpback whale.

To generate energy, a piston-like structure inside the buoy moves up and down with the motion of the waves. That movement drives a generator, producing energy, which is then carried to the shore via an underwater cable.

Terra Firma, finally!

Once back on steady ground, we carried on filming. We spent two more days in Hawaii, and four more in Oregon, filming the story. All were considerably more comfortable than the first.

As I began going over footage, I was struck by the thought that the boat ride, while it may not be my favorite, will probably be my best memory from the trip. Sure, climbing up on the Marines' amphibious assault vehicle was cool, the view from our helicopter tour was breath-taking and catching a surfing competition on the North Shore was awesome.

But the buoy, if it fulfills its promise, represents a beginning. Ocean power is still in the early stage. By most estimates, it's where wind and solar were a few decades ago. And there are just a few companies in the world right now developing the equipment, most of which are still in the experimental phases.

The idea that we could one day harness enough energy to power our cities from the movement of waves is beyond exciting. Scientists estimate that if just 0.2 percent of the energy in ocean waves were harnessed, the power produced could be enough to supply the entire world.

A more sober estimate comes from energy analysts from the World Energy Council who say that someday wave power could supply 10 percent of the world's electricity at current supply levels.

If we could replace one-tenth of our carbon-based energy supply, or even just a fraction of that fraction, with wave energy, we'd be taking a major step towards solving some of our environment and energy problems.

When I got back to work, everyone wanted to know how the trip had gone, where we stayed, and what the weather was like. A few people even wanted to know the details of the story.

Of course, there was also the requisite smart-aleck comment: "Hey buddy, so what did you bring us back from Hawaii?"

I mumbled something about a box of macadamia nuts being on the desk outside our boss' office. But what I could have said was, "Hope."