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Several years ago, when then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie was crafting an energy policy for Hawaii, he was hardly impressed by Blue Planet Foundation’s ambitious plans for pushing the state into an all-renewable energy future. In a speech, he referred to the foundation’s ideas as “magical thinking.”
Later, recalls Jeff Mikulina, Blue Planet’s executive director, “He actually called me ‘Harry Potter.'”
The particular issue was Abercrombie’s push for using liquefied natural gas, along with renewable fuels, as a cleaner substitute to replace the dirty coal and diesel that fuel many of Hawaii’s power plants — and as an inexpensive alternative for a state that pays the nation’s highest electric rates. Blue Planet had been opposing LNG, even as a bridge to renewables.
“I said, ‘You guys, this is all Harry Potter,'” Abercrombie says in an interview. “I said, ‘Harry Potter isn’t real. There really is no Hogwart’s School.'”
If Mikulina is a boy magician, then he and Blue Planet seem to have some powerful spells.
Less than three years after Abercrombie’s speech, the state had adopted Blue Planet’s vision. And the idea of LNG as a bridge fuel was fading.
It took a new governor to clear the path. Abercrombie was ousted by a fellow Democrat, David Ige, in 2014. With Ige in office, Blue Planet made another big push for renewables.
And in June 2015, Ige signed Act 97. The act, now enshrined in Hawaii’s statutes, mandated that the state’s electric utilities use renewable resources to generate 100 percent of the electricity sold in the state by 2045.
As the Blue Planet Foundation heads into its second decade, Act 97 stands as a singular milestone, a sign of Blue Planet’s significant political influence in Hawaii. Perhaps more than any other single entity, this brainchild of Henk Rogers, a Dutch-born video game designer-turned-entrepreneur, is driving Hawaii’s energy policy.
“I think it begins with Henk Rogers,” Ige says. “When he set up Blue Planet, he definitely believed in the cause.”
Before he started Blue Planet, Rogers made his fame and fortune designing the first role-playing video game sold in Japan. He later made a bigger fortune when he built and sold a company that made games for mobile phones. The entrepreneurial Rogers also landed the license rights to market the game Tetris in Japan and helped broker the deal to put the game on Nintendo Gameboy devices. He still serves as managing director of The Tetris Co.
With his salt-and-pepper beard, pony tail and mild Dutch accent, the charismatic Rogers could play himself in a Hollywood tale of a lone visionary who set out to change the world.
Except this isn’t a movie. And Rogers isn’t alone.
Blue Planet’s vision is getting traction on the mainland. Last year, a bill emulating Hawaii’s 100-percent-by-2045 mandate passed out of the California State Senate but stalled in the Assembly. Washington lawmakers also introduced a 100 percent-by-2045 bill last session, but it too stalled.
Local supporters are stepping up. Although the nonprofit still gets the bulk of its funding from Rogers, its recent tax returns show snowballing interest. The foundation generated just under $1.2 million in contributions and grants in 2016. About half came from sources besides Rogers, the 2015 return indicates.
“Blue Planet Foundation is a public charity,” Rogers says. “It’s not my personal mission.”
Donors include solar energy and clean transportation companies, as well as organizations like the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Elemental Excelerator, which supports clean energy startups. Another donor is the Ulupono Intitiative, a Hawaii-based social investment firm focused on renewable energy, local food production and waste management. (Ulupono was founded by Civil Beat publisher Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam Omidyar.)
Blue Planet, which is primarily a think tank and advocacy organization, is spending a big chunk of its money the old-fashioned way: on lobbying. The foundation reported spending just over $719,000 on lobbying from 2013 to 2016.
But Blue Planet’s major expenditure goes to its nine-person team, which includes professionals like Melissa Miyashiro, an environmental lawyer who serves as chief of staff, and Kathryn Mykleseth, a former Honolulu Star-Advertiser business reporter who heads communications. The foundation spent about $531,000 on salaries and other compensation in 2016.
Blue Planet works exclusively on clean energy issues. Its stated mission: “To clear the path for 100 percent clean energy by shaping new policy at the State Capitol and before administrative agencies.”
The message seems to resonate with Bishop Street types who typically sit on the boards of staid companies like HECO and not environmental organizations. A case in point is board vice chair Christine Camp, a real estate developer who held high-level positions with Castle & Cooke and Alexander & Baldwin before starting her own firm, Avalon Development Co.
Camp says she decided to join the Blue Planet board largely because of her young son and concerns about the effects climate change is having on the planet his generation will inherit.
“People say, ‘What a dichotomy. Why would a developer be on the board?’” says Camp, who also serves on the board of Central Pacific Bank. “But you have to realize, we live here too. It’s our community.”
Camp isn’t the only high-powered professional bringing gravitas to Blue Planet. Former Hawaii Gov. George Ariyoshi also serves on Blue Planet’s board. So do John Dean Jr., who is chairman of Central Pacific Bank; Bert Kobayashi, the developer of luxury condos like Hokua and Capitol Place and a director of HECO’s financial subsidiary, American Savings Bank; and Virginia Hinshaw, the former chancellor of the University of Hawaii Manoa.
It’s not a passive group, Camp says. “We have heated discussions sometimes,” she says.
Hawaii’s renewable energy law might play an outsized role in Blue Planet’s identity, but it’s hardly the only issue the organization is working on. Sitting in a conference room at Blue Planet’s dimly lit downtown offices, Mikulina shares the organization’s broader vision.
Dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, Mikulina speaks precisely, punctuating his discussion with hard data, like an engineer from the Midwest, which he is. He was born and raised in Wisconsin, where he debated and played in the band in high school. Although he studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he says he gravitated toward social justice activists.
Mikulina, 43, has a playful side. He plays drums in a funk band called Jive Nene with Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake and Mark Glick, former director of the Hawaii State Energy Office. Once when Mikulina was executive director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, fighting Honolulu over sewage spills, he collected donations at Jack Johnson’s Kokua Festival by setting up a toilet with a sign that said, “Do you give a crap? Leave a buck.”
“There are two main things that make Blue Planet effective. They come armed with data, and they deliver analysis that almost no one else can do in the state.” — Rep. Chris Lee
On this day, he and Mykleseth start a PowerPoint presentation with a slide showing Harry Potter.
The discussion covers a broad range of topics: systems to let residents of high rises power their homes with solar; the regulatory and technical hurdles to setting up smaller, independent microgrids separate from HECO’s system; the prospect of developing a fleet of electric tour buses, and the work of Mattias Fripp, a University of Hawaii electrical engineering professor who has done extensive work modeling Hawaii’s energy systems.
Fripp’s models are important because they help answer the question, “What happens if we have 40 days and 40 nights of rain in 2045 like we did in Hawaii in 2006?”
“To get over the issue of 40 days and 40 nights of rain, after they build the ark, he’s thinking it’s going to be one of two things: It’s going to be biofuels or it’s going to be hydrogen,” Mikulina says. “I think we’re bullish on hydrogen just because it seems like such an elegant solution to, when we have an excess of wind, an excess of solar, make hydrogen out of water.”
The presentation embodies what Blue Planet is best known for: complex, detailed data presented in a way that’s easy to understand.
“There are two main things that make Blue Planet effective,” says Rep. Chris Lee, the chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee. “They come armed with data, and they deliver analysis that almost no one else can do in the state.”
“Jeff is incredibly dynamic, very smart, very charismatic, and very good at messaging,” says Robert Harris, a Honolulu attorney who succeeded Mikulina as executive director of the Sierra Club and now works for the solar company Sunrun. “These are very important skill sets and very rare to have in combination.”
And the organization has the sophistication and common touch to communicate with the range of stakeholders, from school kids to utility regulators.
As Sen. Mike Gabbard recalls, Blue Planet not only helped draft the original renewable energy bill, but also talked to students, the public and parties like Hawaiian Electric Co., the State Energy Office and the Public Utilities Commission.
“There’s no doubt they were instrumental in getting House Bill 623, Act 97 passed,” says Gabbard, who was then chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment.
Transitioning to renewables is enormously complicated and expensive. While HECO must carry out the work, Blue Planet is in the thick of the debate on how to do this. The debate generally plays out before the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.
One recent case involved the thorny issue of how Hawaii’s electricity will be produced and who will produce it.
The HECO companies – Oahu’s Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and the Big Island’s Hawaiian Electric Light Co. – are being forced to radically adapt.
The HECO companies still are traditional power monopolies in charge of producing electricity and delivering it to customers. But increasingly, the companies are more like grid managers, in charge of carrying power to customers from wind and solar farms built by third parties and dealing with intermittent bursts of supply from some 80,000 rooftop solar systems.
HECO’s power supply plan docket spanned almost three years, with scores of filings submitted by nearly three dozen parties, including the Hawaii Solar Energy Association; Eurus Energy America Corp., which operates a massive solar farm on Oahu; AES Hawaii, which runs a coal burning power plant in Kapolei, and the Sierra Club.
Blue Planet’s filings called for numerous innovations, including exploring hydrogen as a way to store energy and creating “intensive coordination between customers and operators of generation and storage (who may be other customers).” Blue Planet also commended HECO for taking LNG off the table.
“It has … been properly removed from the action plan — and it should no longer distract the planning process from the ‘renewable energy first’ planning principle,” Blue Planet said.
In July 2017, the PUC accepted HECO’s plan even as it asked HECO to keep working to improve it. One issue regulators pointed to is something often overlooked in the hubbub over Hawaii’s nation-leading push to renewables: Hawaii consumers ultimately will have to pay to help develop the new power supplies and the grid improvements needed to accommodate them.
For Oahu electricity users, HECO’s power supply plan shows a 44 percent rate increase over 10 years.
Costs to consumers, and the general lack of details on Hawaii’s plan, deeply concern Abercrombie, who seems to be one of the few people willing to openly criticize Blue Planet. He stands firm on the idea of using LNG as “a carbon bridge to a non-carbon future.”
Abercrombie also points out that, because of a loophole in the law, 100 percent renewable doesn’t actually mean that all electricity sold by the utilities will come from renewable sources by 2045. Although Blue Planet is supporting a bill to close the loophole, Abercombie likens the state’s policy to Hollywood special effects “blue-screen technology.”
And he accuses Blue Planet of vilifying those who disagree on issues like LNG.
“They characterize practicality as giving in to a carbon-based future — that somehow you’re a tool for oil and coal,” Abercrombie says.
Others are more diplomatic about the foundation.
“At times our opinions may differ on how to get there, but working with stakeholders is essential,” Scott Seu, HECO’s senior vice president of public affairs, said in a prepared statement. “We collaborate with Blue Planet to move the needle in areas such as electrification of transportation, and we’ve partnered with the foundation, supplying data for its Island Pulse dashboard that lets people know how much energy we’re using and where it comes from.”
Even Hawaii Gas, which frequently spars with Blue Planet over proposed legislation, says it generally supports the foundation’s vision.
“We like what Blue Planet does and what they stand for,” says Aaron Kirk, vice president of business development for Hawaii Gas.
Blue Planet’s offices on Merchant Street still have a funky startup vibe.
Life-size multi-colored Tetris blocks greet visitors outside the elevator, and there’s the requisite ping-pong table in the employee dining room. Rogers continues his visionary endeavors in his corner office. In addition to fighting climate change by ending the use of fossil fuels, Rogers’ missions are to end war, create a back-up of all life on earth, and to find how the universe will end.
An advocate of space exploration, Rogers chairs the board of the state’s Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, which is trying to grow a space industry in Hawaii.
Rogers is also positioning himself to make money as the energy economy moves from fossil fuels. His company Blue Planet Energy is marketing systems, essentially giant batteries, that can be paired with solar panels to store energy and use it later.
And he’s actively supporting Ige in the upcoming election. In February, Rogers held a fundraiser for Ige at Rogers’ home on Round Top Drive, campaign spending commission records show.
Mikulina says that while Rogers is the Blue Planet Foundation’s chairman, his business enterprises are completely separate.
“There’s obviously a huge wall there,” Mikulina says.
The type of work the foundation is doing to fulfill its mission was on display recently when seven Blue Planeteers gathered at a conference table to discuss a new community organizing campaign.
Dubbed “We Are 100,” the campaign will include a media series — including print, photos, and videos — showcasing people and companies who have taken steps to use renewables and nudging them to do more.
It was a classic brainstorming session, with plenty of caffeinated drinks, Magic Markers, Post-It notes and ideas scribbled down, stuck to the wall and discussed. Everybody from Mikulina to an intern chipped in equally.
One of the first questions: what to call the renewable energy early adopters and evangelizers that Blue Planet will feature in the articles and videos. “Positrons,” “Catalyzers” and “Vanguardians” came out as contenders.
“We should use ‘Magical Thinkers,'” Mykleseth joked.
Keeping the momentum going is key. Whatever Blue Planet’s 100 early adopters have accomplished so far, there’s a long way to go.
According to HECO’s latest figures, 27 percent of Hawaii’s electricity is now produced from renewables. Assuming that the law is changed so that 100 percent actually means 100 percent, Hawaii will have to quadruple its use of renewables to fulfill the mandate.
Blue Planet has a generation to help usher the change.
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