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The Inertia

There has been a ton of talk lately on what to do about the rising sea and the effect around the world. In California alone, with 3,427 miles of shoreline, the coastal infrastructure and sandy beaches are in jeopardy. What to do about the homes about to be lost, or that beach days — spreading your towel out on the hot sand — may be a thing of the past? Even trains and highways running up and down the coast of California may be in jeopardy, with many at or near sea level. We could pump more and more sand at a high cost. Though in California we’ve tried this before and know nature always wins and the sand will wash away.

While vacationing in Maui, I read about a mandate to make the island operate on 100 percent renewable energy. The islanders are very concerned, however, because hundreds of acres are taken up with solar and wind farms. They are looking for an energy source that does not use valuable and scarce island property and does not detract from the beauty of their homeland. This led me to think about a man by the name of Gary Ross, founder of Highwave Ocean Energy, and his idea of harnessing wave energy while simultaneously stopping beach erosion, creating marine habitat, and good waves as an added happy bonus.  I called him to hear the latest on his Highwave Ocean Energy reef. Could an artificial reef designed to mimic nature with environmentally-friendly materials be the answer? Could a thriving ecosystem form on this reef while providing clean energy? Could this be the answer to our disappearing beaches? And, as a surfer, will it create good waves?

What’s new with your ocean energy artificial reef?

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A sixth-generation patented design for our reef platform is now ready for an ocean test in the near shore. The mechanics of the platform were privately tested and refined in the flume tanks at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

A lot of amazing technology is going on for surf parks these days. Is your technology related to any of these efforts

Wave pool technology is now advancing quickly. Bruce McFarland of American Wave Machines, who designed the PerfectSwell® BSR in Waco, Texas, has helped our progress over the years in very important ways. Chris Goody from Sea Engineering in Hawaii spent many months in California to advance the great success of Kelly’s wave. He was the architect for our 3D modeling research on our various reef designs.  

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What‘s the case for wave energy?

Wave energy is the ultimate untapped renewable energy source for our planet.  Decades of effort have proven that this energy is real, but also difficult to capture.  Is it possible that researchers have overlooked some very basic aspects of this powerful renewable energy source? Is it possible that surfers or nature itself have already unlocked the code? 

I know your surf trip to Tahiti and witnessing the sheer power of the waves were inspirational in developing wave energy.  Why? 

Reefs have now been recognized and proven to dissipate up to 97 percent of the wave energy from the epic research done by the Nature Conservancy on tropical islands. It can now be claimed that these reefs have the ability to somehow catch and then process 97 percent of the waves’ energy.  This is the exact same energy that no one seems to be able to harvest. So why can nature effortlessly catch and manage most all the energy on a random coral reef on a tropical island?  This natural phenomenon has huge benefits to create habitat, spin-off a good surfing wave and prevent beach erosion. When all this energy is absorbed on the reef, it creates calm lagoons inshore and at zero cost.  

The idea that we may be able to harvest wave energy is fascinating.  How does wave energy exist?

Wave energy is created by the sun; the solar power gives birth to wind energy with storms that transfer this force on the surface of the ocean making the swells that end up becoming the waves crashing on reefs, cliffs, and beaches thousands of miles away. This is possible only because water does not compress, it preserves the energy. Otherwise, all the energy would simply be absorbed into the seawater. Wave energy is similar to the tension in a spring in some ways and also the reason this powerful energy is transmitted globally through oceans. 

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It is also known that more energy is found offshore in the open ocean then the beaches inshore. Swells with high energy in the deep ocean freely travel from its source with no resistance. Swells travel in every and all directions and pass through each other without loss of energy and are not blocked by headlands or reduced by a continental shelf. This is the reason most serious efforts have attempted to find a way to harvest this energy offshore in deeper water for the higher energy potential. Over a billion dollars have been invested, but no technology has proven to be the best solution for harvest.

What about the waves on the inshore?

Refraction is the process that converts all deep ocean swells to become waves on a shore. The resistance of the bottom slows it down and bends the energy to become parallel with the immediate shoreline. The power in the wave is reduced with refraction but can still be very powerful when the wave breaks over and over, as long as a wave-making storm stays in the window of any beach.

Your Highwave Ocean Energy reef captures energy in the inshore.  How does that work?

Highwave’s approach starts with an engineered reef of inert HDPE pipe to refract, focus, and also amplify the energy slightly offshore of any beach. The patented reef is flat when towed anywhere globally and formalized just off the shore to become a structural exoskeleton to be anchored with a 200-year half-life. The removable reef’s final design will be clarified in advance with 3D modeling for any specific location and can be the size of a football field to trap and hold sand as the dynamic mass of this wave-shoaling reef. The reef is not seen from the shore, except for the good surfing wave and is compatible with all marine life with inert material to consider marine habitats.

How does it capture the energy?

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The duck diving mechanics were inspired by surfing and also the free movement of kelp. A colony of these removable collectors will locate on the refraction end zone of the reef to resemble a kelp bed of a new species of giant kelp for fish to take cover. The inert all-pipe reef will dedicate two pipes or more as the plumbing to transfer water pressure to shore to the back of the MaiTai shack. Turbines will then convert the water pressure to AC electric energy or assist desalination or estuary flushing for mariculture. 

How have you funded this project? 

The funding for all the development and efforts came from the success of sustainable products designed and produced by Highwave ® over the last 35 years.

Are any other wave energy capture technologies being developed in the inshore?

The inshore can be chaotic and any devices moored in this environment will face many physical challenges. Dynamic tides, currents, huge waves, and human stakeholder issues are just a preview of the inshore matrix of challenges. 

The singular and now historic Aquamarine Oyster off the Orkney Islands in Scotland was a huge device and close to shore that recorded the largest yield recorded for any device. Unfortunately, it had to be removed when the energy overwhelmed the mechanics and it was towed back to the pits to be rebuilt too many times at a great expense and is now retired. Only a handful of known viable projects globally have a focus on the inshore that will not be seen from the shore. Waveroller was the pioneer. CalWave, Resolute Marine, bioWAVE and Bombora Wave Power are current projects globally whose focus is near the shore. 

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