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21st Century Blowhole

Partnering with Maui Electric Co., Australian-based Oceanlinx Inc. in February unveiled a wave energy project that utilizes the principles of blowholes to produce electricity. But in Oceanlinx's case, its two "blowholes" will be built abot a mile off Maui's North Shore. The first utility-scale wave energy project in Hawaii, Oceanlinx will own and operate the systems and sell the energy to Maui Electric.

At press time, bills in the state House and Senate requested $20 million in special purpose revenue bonds, enough to construct three units. Even if the bonds are not issued, Oceanlinx will fund the project on its own. When completed, the first two units will produce enough energy (2.7 megawatts) to power 1,600 homes. The first unit is expected to be operational by 2009; the second should come online soon after. A third will be installed if the first two operate successfully.  

Here’s a closer look at the project.

Oceanlinx’s wave energy turbine in Port Kembla, Australia (shown at right), has been operational since 2006. The company also has plans for Rhode Island, Namibia in South Africa and Victoria in Australia. President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Co., Mike May, says wave energy is more predictable than solar and wind, and in the Oceanlinx design, the system is above water and has only one moving part, making maintenance easy.



How it Works2. From the surface, the unit looks like a floating platform, but has a hollowed-out underbelly. Picture it as an upside-down shoebox dipped into water, creating a sealed air chamber inside. But unlike a shoebox, the air chamber narrows on the way up, creating more pressure and force, just like a real blowhole.

So when the swell goes up, the air within the chamber is displaced and pushed upward through an opening at the top of the platform. When the swell goes down, air is pulled through the opening and back to the wider part of the chamber.

3. The pressurized air flow moves a turbine inside the chamber, turning it into mechanical power. The turbine is the unit’s only moving part. A generator converts that mechanical power into electrical power. An underwater cable transmits the electricity from the platform back to shore and onto the grid. Oceanlinx project leaders add that surfers should not worry: The systems will tap the same monster swells that power the Haiku surf site known as Jaws, but will not encroach on the famed break.

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