Henk Rogers, Blue Planet Energy
Inside this Article
At the grid level, lead-acid batteries account for just a fraction of a percentage of energy...
Blue Planet Energy designed its lithium iron phosphate (LFP) energy storage platform to optimize...
Energy storage systems are an essential enabling technology that allows for the increasing...
In the 1980s, Henk Rogers made a name for himself in the global gaming industry as the producer of Japan’s first role-playing video game and the entrepreneur behind the popular Tetris franchise, which sold more than 35 million units via a partnership with Nintendo. Today, Rogers is dedicated to putting the building blocks together to enable a transition from a fossil fuel–based economy to one based on renewables integration at a global scale. Rogers is a resident of Hawaii, which mandates 100% renewables by 2045, so this is not an academic exercise for him. To prove the viability of a carbon-free future, he built a state-of-the-art energy lab at his Pu'u Wa'awa'a Ranch facility, which serves as a real-world solar-plus-storage test bed that stores excess generation as hydrogen. After successfully taking his Big Island ranch off the grid, Rogers founded Blue Planet Energy to commercialize safe, reliable and easy-to-install energy storage solutions.
SP: You are a gaming industry executive working in the energy storage space. How did that transition come about?
HR: It’s funny, because I’m not the only one. Both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos got off track from what people originally thought they were doing. One reason is that I can—I have the wherewithal. Another reason is that desire for sustainability has always been dormant in me. It is something that needs to be done. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life making games and making money. That’s not part of my mission in life. I found my life’s missions 10 years ago after a heart attack. My first mission is to end the use of carbon-based fuels. Our children and their children need a future they can live in. As a serial entrepreneur, I got into renewables and energy storage because the transition to a sustainable future was taking too long.
SP: In 2007, you established the nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation, which has successfully executed a number of grassroots energy efficiency campaigns and influenced policy outcomes in Hawaii. What are the foundation’s top priorities?
HR: As a start, we got Hawaii to agree to a 100% renewables mandate by 2045. Now we need to figure out why Hawaii isn’t moving faster in terms of getting off oil and gas. As a state, we import $5 billion in oil every year. It’s insane. Some people are working two jobs. Others are homeless. So many are struggling. If we could reduce the amount of oil we buy by 20%, we could put that money back into people’s pockets, raise standards of living and build decent housing for the homeless. That’s just based on a 20% reduction. Imagine if we could eliminate oil entirely. If we really thought our way of life depended on it, we could transition to 100% renewables in 5 years.
During World War II, we went from biplanes to jet planes and invented the atom bomb, sonar and radar in a period of just 5 years. We made a mountain of progress because there was a sense of urgency. Today, we are facing another existential threat. Look at all the storms hitting the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast. The intensity and frequency of these storms is unprecedented. Human beings are at risk, but our actions are just making things worse.
SP: Why did you chose to build a microgrid research facility at your Pu'u Wa'awa'a Ranch?
HR: When we talk to electric companies about eliminating carbon-based fuels, they say, “We can only handle 15% renewables on our grid because wind and solar are intermittent.” Okay, if they’re intermittent, why don’t you store the energy so you get rid of the intermittency? Then they argue that there is no such thing as storage at this time, which just supports the status quo. The truth is that it’s hard for them to switch over because they make 10% on top of the price of oil. However, they will go out of business if they don’t switch over.
So we started to look at what it means to become energy independent. The first thing my research group, Blue Planet Research, did was take the ranch off-grid. In the process, we learned a lot of interesting things. We found out that in order for us to make it through a cloudy day, we needed to have a certain amount of energy stored, and that meant that on a sunny day, we had all kinds of extra energy. Rather than throw that energy away, which is what the electric company does, we started looking for ways to use it.
That’s when we started making hydrogen. We don’t have that much use for hydrogen on the ranch yet, but we are experimenting. We are learning how to cook with hydrogen, which is a whole different way of cooking. When you cook with hydrogen, your foods taste moist because you are creating H2O instead of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide. The heat also goes straight up, meaning there’s no wasted radiant heat.
The hydrogen economy is coming. We believe Hawaii can use hydrogen as a fuel for moving trucks and buses and even cars. If you’re not throwing away renewable energy that you can’t use immediately or store in batteries, you cut the cost of solar and wind energy in half. We would also like to see people in the Third World cook with hydrogen because it eliminates dangerous gases. People die all the time because they are burning charcoal or wood inside their houses.
The net result of all of this is that I took my ranch off the grid, and I took my home in Honolulu off-grid. Then I started to show other people how easy it is to use solar and storage to eliminate carbon-based fuels. We have over 100 kWh of storage at the ranch and over 60 kWh at my Honolulu home. One day, I got this wonderful call from the electric company. “Mr. Rogers, we think there’s something wrong with our meter at your house.” I told the caller, “There’s nothing wrong with your meter. I’m just not using any of your electricity.” He said, “Do you mind if we go and have a look?” And I said, “No, not at all, you can look away.” If and when they look, they will see that the wires coming out of their meter are capped and taped off. I’m not connected to their meter in any way. And if they want to take their meter back, they can have it.
SP: What energy storage technology did you use to go off-grid?
HR: We are using Sony lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. They can go from a 100% state of charge down to zero, and they can do that for 20 years. With lead-acid batteries, you can use only half of the battery capacity, and you might get 3–5 years. Lithium-ion batteries also take up way less space than lead-acid. The problem with some lithium-ion chemistries is that they catch on fire under certain conditions. That is true of the batteries in my laptop, my phone and even my car, my Tesla. Take NMC batteries, for example, which use nickel, manganese and cobalt. Cobalt is a bad actor. Once it catches fire, it produces its own oxygen, meaning once the fire starts, it’s unstoppable. That’s fine for my car, because I trust Elon to have safety mechanisms in place. And if my car burns down, I’m fairly sure he will give me a new one. But if it’s in my house, where my children and grandchildren sleep, I’m just not into that. That fire is contagious, meaning a fire in one battery can set other batteries next to it on fire. That’s a fundamental difference between the LFP batteries we chose to use and other types of lithium-ion chemistries. Iron and phosphate are both benign chemicals that cannot overheat. You cannot overcharge these batteries, and they do not catch on fire if they get punctured.
SP: You started Blue Planet Energy to commercialize LFP-type Li-ion batteries for residential energy storage applications. What is your company’s flagship product?
HR: Blue Plant Energy’s product is Blue Ion, which gives you 16 kWh of storage in a package the size of a small wine refrigerator. The Blue Ion does not require any cooling system or any kind of fire suppressant. It will never overheat or catch on fire or endanger your house. It will just sit there for 20 years, and you can charge it to 100% and discharge it to zero on a daily basis. There’s nothing else out there that will last that long. We package the Blue Ion in an off-the-shelf server cabinet rather than a fancy box and pass those savings right through to the customer.
Sony started making lithium-ion batteries in 1991 and came out with LFP batteries about 10 years ago. Within the last year, Sony sold its battery division to Murata. Sony is moving in the direction of content rather than electronics. Murata makes its money from electronic components, including many that are inside your iPhone. They want to own the global battery business. We are going to help make that happen.
SP: The US is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of its residential energy storage market. What’s it going to take for this to change?
HR: Battery prices are going to come down, just like computer processing power improves over time. All these different technologies are competing, with new technologies coming out of universities. The battery business is going to be a multibillion-dollar business within a couple years. Everybody is starting to smell that. All we need to do is bring the most reasonable technology to market.
I’m positive that things will change a lot faster than people think. We created a piece of legislation in Hawaii to help the solar industry by giving tax credits. The best estimates said that we would have 30 MW of solar in a couple years. Instead, we had 300 MW with 200 companies installing solar. Once these things get going, they happen so much faster than people believe they are going to. So there is hope.
SP: Commercializing energy storage isn’t your only moon-shot project, so to speak. You are also literally helping to develop an International MoonBase. How did you get involved with these efforts?
HR: The MoonBase project is another one of my life missions. Mission number one is to end the use of carbon-based fuels. Number two is to end war. It’s not so much that wars kill people—we’ve gotten very efficient at war and many fewer people die—but that we spend huge amounts of money on them. We’ve spent more money in Afghanistan than we spent in the entire history of NASA, including Alan Shepard’s first manned flight, the Apollo program, the space shuttle, the International Space Station and the Mars rover. Think about how much technology came out of that space effort, including solar panels. But what do we have to show for the war in Afghanistan? We basically borrowed money from our children and gave it to the military industrial complex. It’s a ridiculous waste of money. If we just could have spent that money on fixing climate change, we’d have solved the problem.
So mission number three is to make a backup of life on Earth. We live life on Earth in a biosphere that is only a couple miles thick. That living biosphere is equivalent to the skin of an apple, where everything inside and outside the skin is dead. We’re seriously messing around with that skin, changing it drastically. The Earth has already undergone several extinction events. The next event of that magnitude is going to happen to us. The first step to preserving a backup of life as we know it on other planets is to go to the moon and have a permanent settlement. Then we go to Mars and make a settlement and live there sustainably. In the meantime, maybe we figure out how to do interstellar travel, and we find planets that are more Earth-like than the moon or Mars and we go there. Who knows?
To get off the planet, we need to practice here on Earth. Hawaii is an ideal test site because it just so happens to be made out of the same stuff as the moon. Regolith is basically powdered basalt. Our volcanoes create basalts. The moon created basalt 5 billion years ago. So our basalt is new; its basalt is old. But if we take basalt here, grind it up and use it to 3-D–print structures, we can do the same thing on the moon. All we need is energy, which we already know how to generate. With PV, we will be able to 3-D–print structures on the moon. And by the way, if we can learn to survive on the moon, Mars and other places, we will know how to live sustainably here on Earth.