Changing The Business Model Of The Utility: Winning Allies (Interview With Henk Rogers Of Blue Planet Energy)

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Recently, I had the great pleasure to sit down with one of my longtime heroes, Henk Rogers, a true climate champion, to talk about solar, storage, microgrids…all the good things. Rogers made hay in the gaming world, helping bring Tetris to the world, and then turned his attention to exploring what else was happening in the world. And at one point, the newspaper in Rogers’ then hometown of Honolulu had a piece that said that we would more than likely, in our lifetime, see the end of coral reefs. It was his waking moment, much like the infamous reading of The Death of Birth was Ray Anderson’s “spear to the chest” moment. Rogers became a clean tech champion after realizing that we (and our carbon pollution) were the cause of this environmental disaster.

He decided, just like that, to solve climate change. A saying he’s fond of is that you can’t tell someone else to clean up their room if you haven’t cleaned yours. So Rogers set out to work in his backyard, the state of Hawaii, which, still to this day, exports more than $5 billion a year for fossil fuels to power a state that is blessed with ample wind, sun, and geothermal reserves. Rogers’ Blue Planet Foundation took 7 years of lobbying and educating to get the state to adopt the first 100% clean energy RPS in the country, a model that many other states soon followed, now encompassing more than 50% of the population of the United States.

The trick for the renewable standard was to change the business model of the public utility, Hawaiian Electric (HECO), Rogers said, so that they could make more money in renewables. And…all of a sudden, they were happy to be at the table.

“HECO makes more money on renewables — by legislative design,” Rogers said. “They were making 10% on top of the price of oil (which HI uses predominantly for energy). We had to change that formula. It costs them 27c per kWh to produce energy with oil. Much of it from Libya, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The price is now about half that for them to produce and store renewables….. This is the thing we need to have on every ‘island’ in the world is to align incentives with the utility.”

Here’s my interview with Henk:

How It Got Started

After the interview, Rogers told me that he was in a panel at an International Union for the Conservation of Nature conference once, along with a University of Hawaii data scientist in the panel. Rogers remembers being rebuffed by the scientist after stating that we would get Hawaii to 100% clean energy by 2045. The scientist took the mic and said something to the effect of — ‘Yo, man, I study this stuff and that sh*t just ain’t possible’ (I’m using editorial liberty of paraphrasing the shortsighted scientist – and I hope you don’t mind). Rogers got the mic back and said, “Well, I may not be as smart as this guy, but I’m going to do this anyway.” Much like Yvon Chouinard, Rogers’ entrepreneurial spirit ignores such “realities” of the world. Chouinard famously said, “If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent. The delinquent is saying with his actions, ‘This sucks, I’m going to do my own thing.’ ”

A few short years after Rogers said we’d do it, Hawaii indeed adopted its 100% (by 2045) clean energy mandate. Rogers said that not only was it possible, it’s happening faster than we could have hoped. The original mandate timeline said we’d get to 40% by 2030, and, according to Rogers, we’re beating that timeline handily.

It goes to show that if you are so focused on what you’re studying, you sometimes can’t pick your head up and see the future. That data scientist with the University of Hawaii was focused on studying how things were, not where they were heading. Rogers says with motivation comes great leaps forward, citing all the advances in WWII. We went from biplanes to jet planes, invented sonar, a bunch of other technologies — including the atomic bomb. In 5 years.

Rogers also took his ranch off grid with solar and batteries. The ranch is a fully functional microgrid. The ranch has Outbacks and Solarc inverters, but Blue Planet’s control software makes sure they work compatibly. The Lithium ferrous phosphate batteries Rogers is using at his ranch are available through Blue Planet Energy, and come with a number of benefits. According to Rogers, they’re safer. They don’t get hot, so there’s no cooling system required. There’s sensors on each module of the battery that help align temperatures and productivity. There’s less moving parts, so less to maintain and less things to go wrong. BPE offers a 15-year warranty on them.

Blue Planet Energy has its most high profile case studies in “island” communities — Puerto Rico and Alaska. In Puerto Rico, they put in microgrids after Hurricane Maria caused catastrophic public health problems by knocking the power out to so much of the island. Thanks to BPE’s microgrids, schools are acting as shelters (as they were intended but failed after Maria). Blue Planet got some funding from Red Cross to retrofit 120 of these schools with some microgrid technology. The next time, when the power went out after the next hurricane, all the schools had power and were able to support people in the emergency basics – clean water, lights, and safe shelter.

The other “island” is an Alaskan village called Shungnak. I call it an “island” because it’s above the Arctic circle, and really remote. Many of the villages in this area get resupplied by airplane. As a result, it’s insanely expensive, and all these villages run on diesel. BPE’s microgrid in Shungnak supplements the diesel — during the winter obviously there’s not enough solar to run things. But the system saves 25,000 gallons of diesel a year, which, for fuel flown above the Arctic Circle, could mean 8-10x that in dollar savings. The microgrid in the village is 225 kw of solar plus 12 BP ion LX cabinets. The village is so remote that Rogers had to take 2 weeks on river raft to get to it. After the BPE microgrid went into place, they recently had a couple of days that they ran completely on solar. “Can you imagine having a massive diesel generator in your town that runs all the time?” he asked. “And for the first time maybe in their lives, they had power and no sound of a diesel generator.”

Update On Hawaii

Rogers’s Blue Planet Foundation helped pass a law saying no more coal by 2022, so we have them to thank for the recent closure of Hawaii’s last coal plant. In the near term, Hawaii is burning more diesel but this is only because supply chains slowed down some solar and storage projects that were supposed to help replace the coal plant by this year. It’s part COVIID, but also part logistics and bureaucracy. “The big problem in Hawaii is the permitting process,” said Rogers. “If there’s a reason we can’t make 2045, it’s not technical or financial, it’s the permitting process.”

When I asked Rogers about the pushback that is happening as a result of the short term increase in electricity prices, he said that it’s just the way it has to be done, and that regulators, the utility, and others knew of this closure for a long time and could have moved faster, but that COVID and supply chain issues derailed a lot of movement. At the end of the day, though, it’s important not to just keep punting. “If you don’t have a deadline, nothing happens,” said Rogers.

State Of The World & Outlook On Things To Come

I asked Rogers for some closing thoughts with regard to the state of the world, and Blue Planet Foundation’s part in it.

“What we need to do to counter the fossil fuel industry is to organize, so that they can’t drown out our voice,” said Rogers. As a result, BPF is signing MOUs with many other nonprofits who are aligned but aren’t all organized. The goal is to create a unified voice to offset the billions in FUD PR money spent every year by the fossil industry.

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Scott Cooney

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is a serial eco-entrepreneur focused on making the world a better place for all its residents. Scott is the founder of CleanTechnica and was just smart enough to hire someone smarter than him to run it. He then started Pono Home, a service that greens homes, which has performed efficiency retrofits on more than 16,000 homes and small businesses, reducing carbon pollution by more than 27 million pounds a year and saving customers more than $6.3 million a year on their utilities. In a previous life, Scott was an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill) , and Green Living Ideas.

Scott Cooney has 150 posts and counting. See all posts by Scott Cooney