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CNBC: Sopogy, Hawaii’s Energy Future

March 16, 2011

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By: Jane Wells

No state in the nation is as dependent on oil as Hawaii.

Oil fuels 90 percent of its power grid, and all that fuel has to be shipped in. Governor Neil Abercrombie estimates oil costs the state of 1.3 million people $7 billion a year.

So Hawaii has been investing heavily in alternative sources of power, with a goal of getting 30 percent of all power from alternative sources by 2030, compared to about 10 percent now. Going green is a big theme here.

Even Hawaiian-born Pierre Omidyar, founder of Ebay [EBAY  30.78    0.83  (+2.77%)  ], is putting his money where his mouth is, as his charitable organizationsupports some sustainability projects.

But in Hawaii, NIMBY (not in my backyard) takes on a whole new meaning. When land is limited, the entire state is your backyard. Winning over the locals to the idea of wind farms and solar arrays in paradise takes patience and flexibility.

“I think it’s a great step forward,” says Carol Feinga, who helps head a community association in the town of Laie, on Oahu’s north shore. She’s talking about a new wind farm in nearby Kahuku built by First Wind, which will provide enough power to serve 7,700 homes. “For us to succeed and survive there are opportunities available for renewable resources,” she says in the shadow of the massive turbines.

But, so far, green power isn’t any cheaper, even with federal subsidies. “Right now we’re probably a little bit more expensive (than traditional electricity), but over a relatively short period of time, we’re going to be competitive,” says First Wind’s Chief Development Officer Kurt Adams.

His firm was able to build the new wind farm with a government loan, and Adams says that for the first time, a plant will combine turbines with a special battery system to smooth out volatility to the electrical grid caused by changes in wind velocity. Both the turbines and the batteries used here are built by American companies.

The Kahuku wind farm sits just out of view of the Turtle Bay Resort, but you can’t miss it if you’re driving on the main road. First Wind also operates a larger wind farm on Maui,  visible on the mountainside while driving from the airport to Lahaina.

The company would also like to build on Molokai as part of a plan to capture wind on outer islands and bring that power underwater to Honolulu, where it’s most needed. But locals on Molokai have not agreed on what land First Wind can use. David Murdock’s Castle & Cooke is running into similar problems on Lanai, where locals are pushing back against a wind farm that some feel will do more harm than good.

“Hawaiians have a very strong sense of their place,” says Kurt Adams of First Wind. “So we like to reach out to the community and spend a lot of time working with the community before we break ground.”

That’s something that Darren T. Kimura, CEO of Sopogy, already knows. His company is based in Hawaii, developing technology for concentrated solar power plants around the world, including one on the Big Island.

“The islands are separated, so every single island has its own grid,” he says, explaining the challenge of integrating renewable energy, with its intermittent nature, such as clouds over the sun. “Our technology incorporates storage, where we are able to basically buffer the effects of clouds.” Kimura says that with concentrated solar, a plant can store power to be used after the sun sets, “way up to maybe even midnight.”

He says solar power companies haven’t experienced the same pushback from locals that the wind energy industry has seen. Still, he’s heard complaints, like feedback on Sopogy’s solar collector called the SopoNova . “We heard from the locals here, ‘Wow, SopoNova’s really ugly’—and it did look ugly. We redesigned it, we designed the aesthetics of it to match the ground color for example, and we made it blend in with local topology.”

Such efforts pay off. Green energy has won over converts. “We lack sustainability,” says resident John Primacio of Kahuku, who’s become a fan of the wind farm. He was impressed that First Wind actually bought the land for the facility rather than leasing it.

“We interpret that to mean they’re going to stay here,” says Primacio. “They’re going to develop and continue providing wind energy. It can only help the endeavor to cut the state from buying oil.”

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