From his desk in his 17th floor Merchant Street office, Henk Rogers often has a clear view of oil tankers moored in Honolulu Harbor.
The wealthy video-game industry businessman and renewable energy crusader examines the vessels to assess whether they are heavy, and full, or more buoyant, and empty.
Regardless, he explained in one of a series of interviews with Civil Beat in recent months, those tankers remind him of Hawaii’s burdensome hunger for oil.
Hawaii’s oil addiction is no secret. In this year of low oil prices, Hawaii is still expected to spend around $4 billion to cover its overall oil bill. That’s down considerably from years past, but Rogers notes that Hawaii continues to spend thousands of dollars on oil for every single man, woman and child living in the islands.
“It is like a tax on everything,” Rogers said. “It is like totally throwing the money away, flushing it down the toilet.”
The cost of oil ripples through the economy, absorbing money that might otherwise go toward investments and infrastructure on a state level, or family savings on a personal level. It also boosts prices on just about any product or service that uses energy.
“It is in their rent, it is in everything they buy,” he laments. “It is in their company paying less of a salary to them.”
Hawaii is especially dependent on petroleum products. The main driver of our economy is tourism, which requires jet fuel to bring in millions of tourists every year. And we have almost as many gas-powered cars in the islands as we do people.
But Hawaii also generates nearly 70 percent of its electricity from fuel oil, creating prices that are nearly three times higher than the national average. We burn about as much oil for electricity as the entire rest of the country, according to top energy executives.
Electric utility officials say they can’t guarantee lower prices in the islands until the state transitions away from oil, due to its volatile pricing. But that process, they say, may take many years.
Rogers knows from a close call that he may not have that kind of time.
At an energy summit in Honolulu in August, he recalled his massive heart attack nearly a decade ago when he was barely in his 50s.
“I had a 100 percent blockage of my widow-maker,” he told the crowd of energy executives, innovators and specialists. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, he said he heard someone say: “This guy isn’t going to make it.”
To his surprise, after the insertion of two stents, he was able to leave the hospital several days later with nothing but a pair of Band-Aids and a much changed mindset.
Rogers decided to use his remaining time on this planet differently. Soon after, he chose a life’s “mission,” as he calls it, “to end the use of carbon-based fuel.”
Part of that goal involves establishing Hawaii as a beachhead for energy independence so that these self-contained islands can become a model for others to emulate.
In 2006, he created the Blue Planet Foundation, which aims to make Hawaii into a “global model for energy independence.”
The non-profit organization has been pushing for greater energy efficiency and opening up a broader space for renewable electricity generation. That included successfully lobbying for Hawaii’s new renewable energy goals, which require “100 percent renewable energy” by 2045.
“I’ve been working on the foundation to reach that goal for a long time,” Rogers explains later in his immaculate ranch home.
But, he adds, “When I think that we have to wait until 2045 to do it; we could achieve this by 2025, if we just made the decisions.”
Hawaii already has a large solar footprint with 15 percent of rooftops statewide generating solar power, with a lot more expected to come online in the coming years.
Off Highway 190 on the Kona side of the Big Island, there is a dirt road that meanders for about a mile past plump cattle lounging on the roadside. Beyond a few scattered homes is a rustic wooden gateway to the Pu’u Wa’awa’a Ranch. This is Roger’s home away from his Honolulu home.
The 32-acre ranch is many things — sumptuous farmland, home to numerous animals like horses, cows, wild sheep, goats and turkeys and even a blind pig.
But it’s also been the testing ground for Rogers’ efforts.
“I was trying to understand why there wasn’t more wind, more solar, more everything. It isn’t about inventing a cheaper (photovoltaic) panel or a better (wind) turbine, because that is already being done,” he explains. “It really is about storage.”
The right battery system can allow people to live more reliably and affordably without being plugged into an electric grid. It can also offer protection to customers who need a backup for an unreliable grid.
And while many battery experts have been working on energy storage for years, no one has yet discovered — or at least popularized — a version that is safe, reliable and affordable enough, Rogers says.
With Vincent Paul Ponthieux, the director of Blue Planet Research, Rogers has built a lab on the ranch to study electrical storage.
The 360 solar panels that fit snuggly on the lab’s roof easily generate enough electricity to power the entire ranch, including Rogers’ home there.
Overall, Ponthieux says, the ranch consumes the equivalent electricity of about 10 typical American homes. The solar panels produce energy for about 17.
The challenge is about the gap times — at night or on cloudy days when the sun’s power can’t be tapped. Ponthieux and his team initially set up a system using flow batteries purchased from a company in Canada, with fuel backups in case it went down. The excess solar energy charged the batteries, which were used at night or when necessary.
The batteries worked at first, but started to degrade. The company moved from Canada to China and became a less reliable partner. By the time the second flow battery died, Ponthieux says, the long warranty the company provided proved to be worthless.
Serendipity intervened. Rogers has a long history in the video game industry and had access to previews of Sony’s upcoming products. He learned of a battery system Sony had begun to sell abroad.
It didn’t overheat like many types of batteries, came with a 10-year warranty from a company that expects to stay around, and looked like sleek stereo equipment — the kind of thing some people show off in their living room.
Rogers bought two cabinets full of the batteries. After testing, his team concluded that Sony was underselling their capacities.
“We were really impressed. We pushed really hard and tested them,” Rogers said.
He and his team, seeing great potential for people wanting to leave the electric grid or who want a backup during crises, created Blue Planet Energy, a company that offers its own storage systems and Sony’s battery technology to help people go off the grid and offset their energy usage.
Sony’s lithium ion phosphate batteries are small — about 4 inches by 20 inches. A slew of them stacked on top of each other in their protective holders look like stereo equipment held in a wine refrigerator.
Five of those containers power the entire ranch. Three others provide the energy for Rogers’ home in Honolulu.
The company is in the process of partnering with solar installers to sell systems as part of a larger package and hopes to sign a lease for warehouse space soon.
Rogers expects Blue Planet Energy to start delivering batteries early next year.
Neither Rogers nor a company representative could say what a specific battery system might cost. Projects are customized and prices vary greatly according to the scale and needs of clients.
The most common installation, where customer are looking for an energy backup for times when the electric grid drops out, might cost anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000. Most fully-off-grid systems with photovoltaic panels and perhaps a back-up generator could cost more than that for a particularly large home or office with more elaborate needs. Pricing is, several people said, very fluid.
Rogers likened it to the evolution of the Tesla car, once the purview of the very wealthy but which has become slightly more affordable over time. Tesla is expected to present a car in early 2016 that will sell for around $35,000 at a later date.
Tesla also recently joined the growing home battery market, including in Hawaii, with its Powerwall battery, which is expected to sell for $3,000 to $3,500 each — although more than one device will be required to power most American homes.
Blue Planet Energy’s units require a more expensive outlay, but the company says they will last 21 years, compared 13 for the Tesla battery.
Convincing people to make such an expenditure up front for a battery is sure to be a challenge.
The Blue Planet Energy booth at the Asia Pacific Resilience Innovation Summits in August included a Sony battery display like the ones Henk Rogers uses for his ranch and home.
Rogers predicts costs will come down substantially as more people buy in and production scales up.
“At the end of the day, a battery will be a commodity. Right now, it is still like: ‘Wow, you’ve got batteries. It’s so cool.’ … But in five years, everyone will have batteries and there will be a ramp (down) in the cost as it goes to everybody.”
More important, as Rogers the environmentalist acknowledges, battery storage will allow consumers to unplug from the grid and control their energy costs.
He is not alone in that dream of giving utility customers their independence, if they want it. “Whether it is Henk or someone else, once those storage options catch up, it is going to make things really interesting,” says Drew Bradley of REC Solar. “You will be able to vote with your feet. … It is going to get as exciting as hell.”
Read our ongoing report on Hawaii’s high cost of living and the search for what can be done about it.
And you can continue the broader conversation and discuss practical and political solutions by joining Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii.