Beaver Island selected as testing grounds for wave energy prototype

A remote island off the coast of west Michigan could become the testing ground for a new energy prototype that harnesses Lake Michigan's tides.

While marine wave energy is considered 10 times as dense as wind energy, the technology that supports it is still in its infancy. Once viable enough, it has the potential to fill a growing need for providing reliable, renewable energy to communities that live on the coast.

That includes the 600 permanent residents of Beaver Island, located off the northwest coast of Michigan's lower peninsula.

"There are a lot of communities like Beaver Island that are in the middle of nowhere," said Dr. Xiaofan Li, at the University of Michigan said. "They don't have a safe power supply to them."

Beaver Island is powered by a single underwater cable that connects to the mainland. However, the lone cable is unreliable and backup diesel generators are often needed to keep the lights on during extreme weather.

In conversations with residents, Li said the community was very interested in finding a renewable source of power. Over the summer, Li will join a team of engineers and sociologists to scope out the best place on the island to build a wave energy converter. 

The summer excursion is funded by a $10,000 catalyst grant from U-M's Graham Sustainability Institute as well as a joint rural research partnership between the institute for social research and college of engineering. If all goes according to plan, Li hopes a prototype could be deployed in summer 2026. 

"This is a very powerful project," he said.

Where should a wave energy converter be built?

When Li's team first broached the subject about testing renewable energy on Beaver Island, they pitched off-shore wind turbines. It's a more mature technology and cities around the world have already deployed successful versions.

But some on Beaver Island were put-off by the interruption to the view, worrying people it could impact tourism.

When students from U-M introduced them to wave energy, there was more positive feedback. In addition to being much more efficient, wave energy turbines are out of sight - mostly stationed underground. 

But where is the most suitable place for the turbines?

"The most important factor is energy resource," Li said. "First of all, you need a place with waves. After that, we need to consider the needs of users. We don't want to transmit electricity several kilometers to others."

One potential site is the Central Michigan University Biological Station, located on the island's eastern shore. 

Also of concern is the soil that will anchor the converter. Other tests that experimented with wave energy found the equipment would get damaged or swept away by strong currents and extreme weather.

"Basically, we want it to be useful, we want it to be safe, and meet the needs of the local community," said Li.


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Converting waves to energy

Harnessing tidal power involves using a state-of-the-art buoy that converts the energy from waves and storing it.

As the buoy floats on top of the waves, it will bob up and down. The oscillating motion then rotates a generator within the buoy, converting it into useable electricity. The mechanics of the buoy make it so the generator spins whether the buoy is moving up or down.

This dynamic is shown in the video below.