Thursday, August 9, 2007 11:03 AM HST

CEO of renewable energy firm found his calling at an early age

by Bret Yager
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

Darren Kimura learned early to use his imagination.

Growing up in Hilo, the emerging renewable energy entrepreneur didn’t have much entertainment to distract him.

“A lot of successful business people come from Hilo,” he said. “The key about Hilo is you go out and make something happen.”

Kimura, 32, is president, CEO and chairman of Sopogy Inc., which the state in June approved for $10 million in special purpose revenue bonds for a new solar farm power plant in West Hawaii.

Kimura has been passionate about renewable energy since his teen and college years. He spent that time founding two energy and communication companies and teaching computers to Waiakea Intermediate School faculty.

And Kimura intends, in a modest way, to take over the world, applying the “make it happen” philosophy to a 15-hour work day that centers entirely around renewable energy, infants and home life.

He used to surf at Honolii. Surfing was one of the first things to go. He doesn’t watch TV or go out to movies anymore.

“It comes down to priorities,” he said. “Always the most important thing to me has been my family, and business. Anything that doesn’t fit into that is no longer around.”

 

Kimura founded Energy Industries when he was 19. Fourteen years later, the energy solutions company is on the cutting edge of renewable energy research and engineering, with 12 offices and more than 200 employees in the U.S., Guam and Hong Kong.

Kimura founded Energy Laboratories in 2000 to expand and diversify Energy Industries. He describes the company as a place where energy innovations can incubate until they are ready for the market. The company has more than 20 such concepts in incubation and has turned nine others into multi-million dollar companies geared at solving energy problems.

The top earner garners $50 million in annual revenue. All of the companies started in Hawaii.

Kimura attended Waiakea High, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he studied business, and Portland State University, where he studied electrical engineering. He started Energy Industries here in Hilo while on summer break from Manoa.

From there, Kimura’s resume of start-ups begins to resemble that of a tycoon. In 1996, he created Energy Conservation in Hawaii; in 1998, Pacific Energy Services; in 2000, eCONTROLS; in 2001, EnergySmart; in 2003, Lighting and Electrical Company; in 2004, Facility Solutions. In 2006, he acquired Quantum Lighting and Quantum Energy.

Kimura lives on Oahu now, but both he and his wife, Kelly, are from Hilo. Kimura attended Waiakea Intermediate School, where he was a computer geek. He remembers enjoying the contact with nature: Camping, hiking, fishing and scouting. He wasn’t an exceptional student, he says. He attributes his success to what he calls “laser beam focus.”

After all, you have to eat your Wheaties if you want to wean a state of its dependency on foreign oil. Kimura sees that as a personal quest.

“I want energy independence for Hawaii,” Kimura said. “It’s a big task, and I want to do it in my generation. We’re 89 percent dependent on foreign oil.”

Sopogy Inc. today offers new concentrated solar power collectors to generate electricity and air conditioning, industrial steam and agricultural drying, with the potential for creating drinking water from evaporated sea water along the way. Kimura is still working to shrink the technology down to where it can be used by individual households.

“The markets we can go after now are the larger businesses and utilities,” he said.

Kimura’s new 3,000-reflector solar farm, under the name Keahole Solar Power, will be built on six acres at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority in Kona. Capable of producing a megawatt of electricity and powering 500 homes, the $8 million project will likely be online by July 2008, Kimura said. The farm will be able to produce electricity about 25 percent more cheaply than conventional means, he said.

Keahole Solar Power is in the design phase, about a month away from breaking ground if its permits come through.

“The good thing about solar is it’s typically a lot faster to construct; you’re dealing with traditional metal, glass and concrete, and you’re not dealing with rare or toxic materials,” Kimura said. “This is a good project and we want it to happen as soon as possible.”

In addressing climate change, energy security and sustainability, Kimura can’t say enough about solar. Its production cycle meshes perfectly with the human use cycle, he says, and on the sunny west side of the island, solar is very cost effective, even if it’s less so in the rainy and cloudy east side climate.

Kimura said the Big Island’s efforts at geothermal and wind-powered ventures are a step in the right direction. But with fossil fuels dwindling and global warming looming, renewable energy is not just an option, but a growing imperative to Kimura.

“Renewable energy is good for the environment, the pocketbook and society,” he said. “These are the kinds of things we have to do now. The incentives are there. There is no better time to go green.”

Bret Yager can be reached at byager@hawaiitribune-herald.com



The Big Island is blessed with many renewable energy resources—solar, geothermal, wind, biomass, and run-of-the-river hydro. About 1/3 of the electricity generated on the Big Island is produced from renewable energy resources. In fact HELCO, as a stand-alone utility, is a world leader for the amount and diversity of renewable energy used to generate electricity, as well as for the proportion of intermittent renewable energy resources being used.

Intermittent sources of electricity rely on nonconstant sources of power, such as wind, stream flows, and sunshine. HELCO has committed to increasing the amount of renewable resources, both intermittent and firm, used to generate electricity and is aggressively working to mitigate potential system reliability impacts of intermittent renewable energy resources.

Independent power producers in Hawaii can take advantage of beneficial financing options and generous federal and state energy tax credits that may not be available to a public utility like HELCO. However, HELCO continues to support the development of renewable energy by purchasing renewable energy from the independent power producers.

Additionally, HELCO supports the installation of customer-sited renewable energy systems under the state’s net energy metering
legislation, which allows excess power generated by customers from renewable energy sources to be fed into the power grid.
Current independent power producers include: Puna Geothermal Venture, with 30 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power; Hawi Renewable Development, with 10.6 MW of wind power; Pakini Nui, with 20.5 MW of wind power; and Wailuku Hydro, with 12.1 MW of hydropower; along with other smaller producers.

Looking forward, independent power producer Sopogy, Inc. is planning to construct a 3.5-MW concentrating solar energy farm.
With so many renewable energy options available, we at HELCO can foresee no circumstance under which we would seek to construct a new fossil fuel plant.

View full story: helco_consumer_lines_aug07.pdf


  

Pacific Business News (Honolulu) - August 3, 2007

Tina Yuen, PBN

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The aluminum trough-shaped solar collectors developed in the warehouse of Honolulu-based Sopogy Inc. do not represent the next revolution in solar energy generation.  The company doesn’t revolt. It specializes in evolution, fashioning design improvements that increase the practicality of proven technology.  “We try to go after markets that already exist, providing near-term, modest solutions,” said Darren Kimura, president and CEO of the company he founded in 2006.

Next-generation technology

Sopogy builds next-generation parabolic reflectors that concentrate solar power, maximizing energy output from a low-cost, durable system that can be set up on or off the power grid.  The strategy has earned Sopogy the attention of two local venture capital groups, as well as the state, which this year made available up to $10 million in special-purpose revenue bonds to finance a one-megawatt power plant to be connected to the Big Island grid.  “Darren’s company is taking technology that has been proven to work in other areas, but has not been fine-tuned in Hawaii,” said state Sen. Carol Fukunaga, D-Makiki-Tantalus-Punchbowl, who proposed the legislation to provide the revenue bonds. “He has been very innovative in his approach.”

The 3,000-reflector plant will be built on six acres of lava rock at the Big Island’s Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority for an estimated $8 million and run by a newly formed Kimura company, Keahole Solar Power.  “Our goal is to use this as a showcase,” Kimura said. “We’re a Hawaii-based company, but our market is the world.”

Kimura isn’t ready to put a price tag on his units yet, but said Sopogy’s focus has been to build a system that costs about half as much as a comparable photovoltaic system, with a return on investment in three to five years.  Sopogy’s solar units differ from the more widespread, flat-paneled photovoltaic systems seen on residential and commercial rooftops. The company’s researchers focus on concentrated solar power designs, models with oil- or water-filled pipe that runs through parabolic reflectors, capturing heat used to generate steam.

That concept isn’t new.

The innovation comes in the form of nanocoating that insulates the reflectors from salt damage, of axes that allow the reflectors not only to track the sun in quarter-degree increments, but also to be flipped over and protected with additional casing in a hurricane.  A California company manufactures the units from glass, aluminum and concrete — an attractive element of the project for investors.  “They figured out how to use a low-cost manufacturing process,” said Joelle Simonpietri, a partner at Kolohala Ventures, which invested in Sopogy last year.

Sopogy is working with two different commercial models — the 2.5-foot-wide SopoFlare and the 5-foot-wide SopoNova.  “We’re the only company out there that is trying to shrink these systems,” Kimura said.

Building the ranks

Over the next year, Sopogy will build its ranks from its current 11 employees, looking to grow into a 100-employee company, Kimura said. A second round of financing should bring an influx of at least $5 million, he said.

The company has an eye on going public in the next three years, he said, a move that would give it more liquidity and bolster its research and development, as well as manufacturing, efforts.  “Hawaii is really only our lab,” Kimura said. “Our market is California, Asia.”

But the entrepreneur from Hilo has no plans to see his company leave the state.  “I want to leave a legacy in Hawaii,” he said.

cwoolard@bizjournals.com | 955-8039