Thanks to a Navy test site, America’s first wave-produced electricity was fed into Hawaii’s power grid last summer. The US Department of Energy confirmed in July 2015 that the Azura prototype generator developed by Oregon-based Northwest Energy Innovations (NWEI) was the first to add wave energy to a US power grid, and although the test site has remained active, it could still be a decade or more before a large-scale wave energy project begins producing a substantial amount of electricity for the American people.

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Wave energy, like its ocean-borne counterpart tidal energy, is a growing sector in renewable energy that holds a lot of promise. Solar and wind power have been established as viable alternatives to fossil fuels, both in cost and electricity production, but the output of wave energy could eventually help it become a leading source of clean energy. Wave energy makes a lot of sense in a place like Hawaii, which is surrounded by some of the best surf on Earth. WETS, which came online July 2015, also aims to contribute to the state’s goal to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2045.

Related: 45-ton Azura generator harvests energy from Hawaii’s waves

“More power from more places translates to a more agile, more flexible, more capable force,” Joseph Bryan, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, said during an event at the site. “So we’re always looking for new ways to power the mission.”

More than a year after it first went online, WETS is still only a small scale pilot program. Elsewhere, many countries are working to develop technology to generate electricity from the ocean’s movement, both in the form of wave energy and tidal energy projects. The world’s first large-scale tidal energy project just kicked off in Scotland using vastly different technology, and will be fully operational the early 2020s. An Australian wave energy project recently set a world record for days in operation. Meanwhile, Sweden-based CorPower Ocean pushes the envelope, promising five times the electricity production of existing wave energy technology. Other projects are planned for various sites around the globe, demonstrating the increasing popularity of this oft-overlooked clean energy source.

Although the early results from the Hawaiian test site are exciting, wave energy experts say it could be up to 10 years before a large-scale wave energy project could go online. In part, they blame the very seawater that makes the clean energy possible. “The ocean is a really hard place to work,” said Patrick Cross, specialist at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which helps run the Hawaii test site. “You’ve got to design something that can stay in the water for a long time but be able to survive.”


Images via Northwest Energy Innovations