From Wave to Table: A Sea of Change

If the set of the ’80s post-apocalyptic movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was crossed with a high-tech science lab, it might look something like the NELHA (Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority) campus. Located about six miles north of Kailua-Kona, NELHA is home to 30 or so companies developing new ocean-science and renewable-energy technologies. It started out as NELH in 1974, when the state Legislature set aside 322 acres at Kea-hole Point for the project.

The research focus at NELH was on ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), a process that utilizes the temperature difference between the warm surface water and cold, deep-sea water of the ocean to generate electricity. In 1980, the first of two pipelines was built to draw deep-sea water from a depth of 2,000 feet and surface seawater from 45 feet. (The most recent pipeline was completed in 2001, and is pumping water from 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.)

Over time, it became obvious that the ocean water being used for OTEC research had other potential applications, so, in 1984, new legislation was drafted that allowed NELH to host commercial businesses. Today, NELHA’s tenant businesses are focused on a variety of activities, including bottling deep-sea water and growing shrimp, seahorses, kampachi, abalone, lobster, oysters and pharmaceutical algae.

Public presentations about the history of NELHA, its tenants and the uses of deep-sea water are held Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at NELHA’s Hawaii Gateway Energy Center, a zero-net-energy facility (it produces more energy than it consumes) that uses photovoltaic cells for energy production and deep, cold seawater for cooling. A requested donation is $8 for adults and $5 for children and seniors (children age 8 and under are free). For more information, call 808-329-8073 or visit

This month, NELHA will begin hosting quarterly fish markets featuring its tenants’ products, and is hoping to expand to a weekly market in the future.