Henk Rogers: thinking globally and acting locally

A conversation with Henk Rogers about saving the planet

Shortly after meeting Henk he invited me to his ranch on the slopes of Hualalai to check out his energy lab and chat about the things he’s working on. I’m a renewable energy lawyer so this was a pretty natural suggestion and I happily said yes to his invitation.

Henk is well-known for being “the Tetris guy,” and indeed he was integral to the original Tetris game becoming a worldwide phenomenon. He did well with that venture and although he is now retired from his career as a game developer he is still active as an entrepreneur.

He’s branched out considerably from his early days and is now active in various ventures in the energy and environment field, including an energy storage company (Blue Planet Energy) that makes batteries for home and commercial use, a Hawaii nonprofit (Blue Planet Foundation), working to bring a renewable energy economy to Hawaii, and also in space exploration with a group (International MoonBase Alliance) working to build lunar habitats on Earth and eventually on the Moon.

Obviously, Henk has a lot of big ideas. We’ll see below what motivates him.

Henk is Dutch-American with strong ties also to Japan. He grew up all over the world and still lives in various locations. But he calls his ranch on the green slopes of Hualalai home a significant portion of the time and it is now a showcase for many of his ideas.

Henk and I conducted this interview by email.

What drives you in terms of your ambitious plans on energy and the environment, space travel, etc.?

I have a burning desire to contribute something positive to humankind. It’s not about a legacy. It’s about leaving the Earth a better place than I found it. I want to die knowing that I accomplished something that will improve the quality of life for future generations.

As a game designer and entrepreneur how did you end up where you are today and working on the issues you’re focused on today?

Over 10 years ago, I experienced 100% blockage of the “widow-maker,” the largest artery in your heart. If you’re not within 15 minutes of a major angioplasty facility when it’s blocked, you die. It was this near-death experience that made me rethink my goals for the rest of my life.

I can imagine that kind of thing would make you reevaluate a little! Did you go through a process to determine your goals and how to implement them or was it more intuitive?

I just thought about the rest of my life. What was it that would give me the greatest regrets if I did nothing about them when I was actually on my deathbed some time in the future?

You have a 28-acre ranch and educational facility at the foot of Hualalai mountain on the Kona side of the big island. What role does this ranch play in your ambitions for the green energy transition here in Hawaii?

The ranch is a huge part of my personal journey to sustainability, and also helps me develop and demonstrate the technologies for others to live sustainably. I’m surrounded by 110,000 acres of conservation land. I connect with the Universe. On a down-to-Earth level, I’m studying how to live off-grid. All of our energy comes from the sun. We have batteries to get us through the night. We make and store hydrogen to get us through a week of dark days. I also built a little laboratory where we build things that we think people will need in the future to become sustainable.

You founded the Blue Planet Foundation, one of the key nonprofits working on energy policy in Hawaii. How active are you with the nonprofit? How much of a role did Blue Planet play in getting Hawaii’s new mandate for 100% renewable energy by 2045 passed into law?

I’m the Founder and funder of Blue Planet Foundation. I’ve got some amazing people running the foundation, so I’m not involved in day-to-day management. We were key in creating and fighting for the mandate for 100% renewable energy by 2045. Now, I’m trying to figure out how to do what we did for Hawaii for the rest of the planet.

Is Blue Planet focused still just on Hawaii? Do you have plans to expand advocacy to other states or to national policymaking?

Blue Planet Foundation is first and foremost focused on making sure that the transition we have started in Hawaii actually happens. Because the other states in the U.S. have similar legal systems, what worked in Hawaii should work in other states. The foundation is now helping a number of other states with their mandates. In order to deal with other countries in the world, I’m working on a new organization that will focus on other countries. It will be based in New York so we can work with the United Nations.

How would you characterize your management style? Are you mostly hands-off or more like a helicopter parent?

My management style is definitely hands-off. If I ask you to run something, I will provide vision and mentorship, but you have to run it.

In terms of energy independence for your ranch and potentially for the Big Island or the state as a whole, what respective roles for large-scale battery storage and hydrogen do you see?

Batteries are good for short-term storage, like getting through the night on solar. For long-term storage they are too expensive. Hydrogen is the solution to long-term storage. You make it with excess energy or bio-waste (methane). You can store it in traditional pressurized gas tanks. It’s way safer than any fossil fuel.

Have you or your team thought much about pumped hydro storage, perhaps using wind power or solar to drive water uphill into the storage container and then letting gravity create power with the release of the water when needed? As you know, pumped hydro storage is a pretty common storage technology around the world.

Building dams for pumped hydro is of course an easy way to store water. It’s not without detriments. People and nature have suffered great harm by us building dams.

Does wind power have a future in Hawaii? Or do you think we should go mostly solar because of reduced opposition to low-profile solar projects?

Wind power does have a future in Hawaii, especially on the Big Island. But you leave out the biggest potential energy source in the state, geothermal. There is more than enough energy under the Big Island to power the entire state for the rest of time. I’ve been to Iceland and I’ve seen how it transformed their economy without any detrimental environmental or cultural damage. Quite the opposite, geothermal put Iceland on the world map. They went from being a distant fishing community using coal for heat and energy to being 100% renewable and becoming the biggest producers of aluminum in Europe.

Geothermal is more complicated in Hawaii because of our active volcanoes. Do you support an expansion of our geothermal energy supply even with active volcanoes Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai, all areas that would be, by necessity, the potential locations for additional geothermal facilities? Our one existing plant, Puna Geothermal Ventures, was quite lucky to escape complete destruction in the 2018 Kilauea eruption, but it has yet to come back online.

Geothermal may be more complicated, but not as complicated as not doing it. As long as we don’t put all our eggs in one basket by building one massive plant, we should be fine. Geothermal means volcanic activity no matter where you go. Puna Geothermal was indeed spared. I believe the reason that it’s not yet on-line is transmission lines are still down. Any source of power that includes transmission lines is equally vulnerable.

Given the difficulties with geothermal and biomass (two “baseload” renewable energy resources that are quite popular in some other jurisdictions around the world), do you see the Big Island’s energy future consisting of a large majority of solar, wind and battery storage, with perhaps some hydrogen production and storage for long-term storage if that’s required (a recent Wartsila study didn’t find any hydrogen storage required for Hawaii due to our climate)?

If we’re smart, geothermal will become the biggest source of renewable energy on the Big Island. If we’re really smart, geothermal will produce serious amounts of hydrogen, enough to export to other Hawaiian islands as a back-up fuel for the intermittent energy sources, wind and solar. If we’re geniuses, we will set up a massive hydrogen export business and sell hydrogen to Japan. We could be the Saudi Arabia of hydrogen.

What about the efficiency issue for hydrogen? Many studies show it’s about three times less efficient than using power directly for battery storage. Does this limit hydrogen to long-term storage as you suggested above?

The efficiency issue for hydrogen prevents it from replacing batteries for short-term storage in the near future. Hydrogen can be made from excess solar/wind energy or even from landfill and municipal waste which produce methane (CH4). The fact that hydrogen can be produced cheaply and in large quantities makes up for its inefficiency. Remember, an internal combustion engine is only about 25% efficient after 100 years of innovation. A hydrogen fuel cell is about 40–60% efficient and we’re just getting started on innovating.

Last, Hawaii’s islands are great case studies for very high penetration of local renewables because they each constitute their own small grid. How soon do you think the Big Island could get to 90% or higher locally-produced green energy for all of our needs, including electricity, transportation and agriculture?

Switching to renewable energy is not something we should want to accomplish someday. We should put our state and the whole country on a war footing. We should declare a state of emergency. We should declare war on Global Warming/Climate Change. Instead of paying people to do nothing during this pandemic, we should pay them to build Renewable Energy infrastructure. The Big Island should be a slam dunk. Electric vehicles to move people. Hydrogen vehicles to move containers, municipal vehicles and buses. I think we can get there in five years. All we have to do is “want to.”

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Tam Hunt

Public policy, green energy, climate change, technology, law, philosophy, biology, evolution, physics, cosmology, foreign policy, futurism, spirituality