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Beaver Island takes early steps to test wave energy in its waters

Project team on site. (Courtesy:
The project team on site, on Beaver Island. (Courtesy: Beaver Island Association via University of Michigan)

Wave energy converters use the movement of the water to generate electricity. A research team from the University of Michigan will spend the next couple years developing a prototype to install in the waters off the island.

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit environmental media organization.

A project off the shore of Beaver Island could harness the power of Lake Michigan’s waves to generate renewable energy.

Right now, the island’s roughly 600 year-round residents get electricity from an underwater cable and diesel generators.

But the community has worked toward renewable energy for a while. For instance, in 2022 it was one of 12 remote communities to receive Department of Energy grants to identify renewable energy and energy efficiency opportunities, and it’s exploring community solar.

Now, a team with the University of Michigan is collaborating with Beaver Island residents to develop a wave energy converter for the island.

Wave energy converters use the movement of the water to generate electricity. The research team will spend the next couple years developing a prototype to install in the waters off the island.

Xiaofan Li, who is leading the research team, said that prototype will eventually be part of a microgrid. And while it’s not expected to generate a lot of power, his team hopes it will pave the way for similar projects in remote and underserved coastal communities.

“So in this project, we’re going to comprehensively consider both the technical and the environmental impact and the feedback from the local community,” Li said. “We will collect all the information and design something specifically for the Beaver Island community.”

There are many different converter models. Some use buoys bobbing at the top of the water and others use oscillating panels.

There are also many hurdles to deploying this technology. For one, bodies of water where these converters work are often harsh environments, making them expensive to develop and risky for investors.

“Designing these technologies to both efficiently harness energy from the waves but also be able to withstand some of the extreme conditions that they'll face, it's incredibly challenging,” said Craig Hill, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering with the University of Minnesota Duluth. “Right now, the cost of energy for these wave energy converters is just so much higher than some of the other renewable sources that we're seeing take on around the world.”

Given those factors, the Great Lakes could become a testing ground for this technology.

“It's nothing like what the coastal U.S. or the oceans are going to have, but at least today for the scale of wave energy converters being researched and built, it actually has a really good wave energy resource,” Hill said.

Hill is among those working on wave energy conversion in the Great Lakes. And he thinks the industry could be shifting as well; he pointed out that this summer, a major marine energy conference is coming to the Great Lakes region. (It usually alternates between the east and west coasts.)

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan team is working with residents to incorporate social and environmental factors into the Beaver Island project, and researchers hope that eventually, this will serve as a model for other shoreline communities.

“When we say community co-design, co-development, it doesn't mean only one specific community,” said Professor Lei Zuo, who is part of the research team. “It’s more like the end user.”

The university is putting $10,000 toward efforts this summer to determine the best place for the project on the island.

The team will be demonstrating different wave energy converters at Beaver Island’s sustainability fair next week.

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with Grist.org.