From state route 19 on Hawaii Island’s west coast, the Friends of Nelha building beckons the curious and inquisitive. Its steeply pitched, solar-panel lined roof, part of an advanced sustainability system that helps cool the building, rises up into the sky, evoking the sails of the seafaring canoes Polynesians used to explore the South Pacific and arrive in Hawaii.

Nelha is an acronym for Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, and the seaside property is a state-operated ocean science technology park that is home to a number of research projects, companies and a high school, all collectively known as the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park.

The state runs multiple pipe lines into ocean, pumping both surface and deep sea water (which have different temperatures and other characteristics) to the coast where it is used for sustainable energy and aquaponics research and other projects. The park at Keahole Point is home to roughly 50 tenants, including facilities cultivating shrimp, sea horses, abalone, lobster, oysters, ocean fish, mushrooms and micro algae.

Nelha was the site for the first successful Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) plant in the world, utilizing the temperature difference between deep, cold ocean water and warm surface water to create electrical power. The process uses ammonia, which has a lower boiling point than water. Thee hotter ocean surface waters is used to make ammonia boil and vaporize. The ammonia vapor, or steam, then moves a turbine, driving a generator to produce electricity. In the closed-loop system, the ammonia is then cooled with deep sea water, returning to a liquid state and can be heated again to produce more electricity.

Friends of Nelha offers three different tours on a rotating schedule. The 800-acre property’s various occupants hold something interesting for almost everyone, from foodies, to science wonks, environmentalists, and engineering enthusiasts, and the different tours highlight different aspects of all of the activity. Friends of Nelha has one full-time employee, executive director Candee Ellsworth, who has a science background herself in addition to a contagious enthusiasm for all of the innovative work being done at the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park. She is extremely knowledgeable on the park and its members, and gives a brisk and informative tour, sprinkling in interesting facts and details without drowning participants in too much information.

The Inspiring Innovation tour is held every Monday, and starts with a visit to West Hawaii Explorations Academy, a charter school on property. It is hard for an any adult from a traditional U.S. educational background to not leave the academy a little jealous. The open-air campus sits by the ocean and rather than dedicating the majority of their time to mind-numbing, outdated textbooks, all of the students participate in group science and technology projects, from raising schools of clown fish to building robots.

A student led us on a tour of the campus, allowing others students to describe their research projects. One group is helping to raise sharks in an on-campus pool and another is studying some of the creatures that emerge from the deep sea ocean water tube. The tour then heads to the Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion Tower, for a in-depth breakdown of how the sustainable energy system functions. Finally, the tour stops at ESPEC, where they are using deep seawater to grow fresh organic greens.

The Ocean Conservation Tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays also includes a tour of West Hawaii Explorations Academy, before heading to the Hawaiian Monk seal rehabilitation center, Ke Kai Ola, where guests get a firsthand look at how scientists are working to rehabilitate wild seals that are found injured, sick or beached. This tour also stops by the thermal energy plant and then on to a building used as a business incubator, hosting a variety of green businesses.

Wrapping up the tour offerings is the Sustainable Aquaculture Tour held on Wednesdays and Fridays. The Hawaii Islands are one of the most isolated inhabited locations in the world, and food security is an important local issue, and many of the park tenants are involved in innovative methods of food production. This program also includes a stop at the Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion facility and then heads on to a water quality laboratory, and a fish farming research facility, where participants have the opportunity to try grilled abalone from an onsite aquaculture farm.

Friends of Nelha is a nonprofit and all tours cost $32 for adults, $28 for seniors, students, military and local residents and free for children under 8 years old.


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