A $35 billion plan to buy Hawaii’s main electric utility and quickly get it off fossil fuel while reducing rates for consumers was greeted with heavy skepticism in January when the ambitious endeavor was made public.
Some dismissed the initiative by an entrepreneurial Minnesotan who moved to Hawaii last year as unrealistic or, worse, a joke. Others lauded the idea but figured it was financially impossible and wouldn’t gain traction.
But since then the venture named Ku‘oko‘a Inc. has attracted several leaders with powerful connections, including a past chief of the Central Intelligency Agency and a former deputy secretary of the federal Department of Energy.
T.J. Glauthier, the Energy Department’s No. 2 official from 1999 to 2001, and R. James Woolsey, CIA director from 1993 to 1995, have joined Ku‘oko‘a as investors and board members.
Rob Robinson, a Hawaii venture capitalist and professor of entrepreneurship and e-business at the University of Hawaii, is another investor taking a seat on the board recently.
And Rick Blangiardi, general manager of local TV broadcaster Hawaii News Now, agreed to serve as Ku‘oko‘a’s board vice chairman.
In all, Ku‘oko‘a has eight board members, and the addition of one or two more is being considered.
The company’s goal is to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., which provides power to about 95 percent of the state’s population, and shift it completely from its current dependence on imported oil to alternative energy sources within 10 years.
Of the eight board members, seven aren’t involved in running Ku‘oko‘a as employees or executive officers. But they all have invested money in the startup, giving them a financial stake in realizing the plan, according to Alan Tang, Ku‘oko‘a’s chief strategy officer and the owner of local marketing firm Olomana Marketing.
"They are committed to the vision," Tang said.
Individual investments weren’t disclosed, but Tang said the total amount is roughly a "few hundred thousand dollars." Some local business leaders said Ku‘oko‘a’s founder sought $20,000 investments with offers for a seat on the board.
Investments tied to board positions are common for startup companies trying to raise seed capital, according to corporate governance experts. Such board members differ from independent directors, who typically provide guidance to well-established companies and are paid for attending meetings.
Glauthier, who is involved in the private-sector energy industry and was on the 2008 transition team helping Barack Obama assume the presidency, said he examined Ku‘oko‘a closely.
"I looked at it hard before agreeing to sign on," he said. "I believe it’s feasible."
Woolsey, whose introduction to Ku‘oko‘a was made by Glauthier, said he has high regard for Glauthier’s judgment of people and technology. Woolsey is also a founding member of an organization dedicated to freeing the United States from its dependence on oil for fuel, and views Hawaii as an opportunity to demonstrate that independence from oil can be achieved.
"It’s a very interesting opportunity," Woolsey said of Ku‘oko‘a, which is the Hawaiian word for freedom or independence. "It seems to me it’s really worth a try."
Ku‘oko‘a’s vision is to tap a variety of renewable energy sources to replace oil as Hawaii’s main source for electricity. The backbone of the plan is to derive most electricity from geothermal energy on Hawaii island and Maui for delivery to Oahu and other islands via undersea cables.
Geothermal power is proven and has the benefit of not being an intermittent source of energy like the sun and wind. An existing geothermal plant on Hawaii island, Puna Geothermal Venture, supplies about 20 percent of that island’s electricity needs.
Other power sources such as wind, solar, biofuel, wave and ocean thermal energy would likely also play roles, though geothermal would supply the base load and is the linchpin to Ku‘oko‘a’s plan, according to Roald Marth, a self-described nerd from Minnesota who started Ku‘oko‘a and is the company’s chief executive officer.
Marth told a Rotary Club of Honolulu meeting in April that geothermal energy might even be able to oversupply the state with power, allowing extra power to be exported if converted to another form such as liquid hydrogen.
The exports and fixed energy costs, according to Marth, would not only insulate ratepayers from higher oil prices and electricity rates, but also would cut the cost of electricity to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour statewide. Presently the rate is about 30 cents on Oahu and around 40 cents on neighbor islands.
Marth also told the Rotary Club group that a state plan to reduce Hawaii’s dependence on oil, the Clean Energy Initiative, will result in too little alternative energy too late.
The initiative, launched in 2008 with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, has a goal to reduce statewide energy consumption by 30 percent through efficiency and shift 40 percent of production to renewable sources by 2030. Renewable energy production under the initiative is largely based on planned but controversial wind farms on Maui and Lanai.
Even if the state’s goal is achieved, Hawaii could still be 60 percent reliant on oil that could cost $300 or $400 a barrel — enough to drive the price of a kilowatt-hour of electricity to 80 cents, Marth told the group.
"The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative does not go far enough and does not go fast enough," he said. "The cost of electricity and the cost of fuel is killing the economy of Hawaii — and it can be fixed."
Of course, Ku‘oko‘a’s plan is far from being realized, and faces monumental obstacles.
The company is still in a formation stage, has no physical office and has not made a formal bid to buy Hawaiian Electric.
Hawaiian Electric saidin January that it would not acknowledge or comment on any purchase offer it might receive, and the company reiterated that position last week.
Buying Hawaiian Electric — with its subsidiaries on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island — would be at least a $2.3 billion proposition based on the company’s market value.
Marth has estimated total costs of buying the utility plus shifting it to 100 percent renewable energy production and delivery could be roughly $35 billion over 10 years.
To date, Marth has raised some seed money from investors but has largely funded Ku‘oko‘a himself. He said he has personally contributed $1.2 million. Most of that, according to Tang, is to pay salaries for eight executives and a similar number of employees.
Marth claims to have 26 investment bankers interested in financing the $35 billion plan. "I’m fighting off the money right now," he said at the Rotary Club meeting.
Some observers question whether it’s feasible to run a cable along the extremely rough and deep Alenuihaha Channel between Hawaii island and Maui.
Marth says it can be done, though not easily or cheaply. According to Puna Geothermal, the state investigated the feasibility of an Alenuihaha Channel cable in the 1980s and concluded it was possible but too costly without considerable government subsidies. The state estimates it will cost $800 million to $1 billion to install a cable linking Oahu to wind farms on Molokai and Lanai.
Marth has said a company like Hawaiian Electric with public shareholders interested in growing quarterly profits faces a disincentive to invest billions of dollars in renewable energy production.
A company like Ku‘oko‘a with private capital focused on long-term returns from renewable energy investments is necessary to make the conversion, he said.
One big concern for local consumers and businesses is whether such a return could be achieved without coming at the expense of ratepayers. Some stock analysts and energy industry experts have expressed doubt about Ku‘oko‘a’s plan penciling out.
Another uncertainty is whether the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities, would approve a purchase of Hawaiian Electric.
Beside the technical and financial issues, much skepticism raised in January focused on the people leading Ku‘oko‘a.
Marth, 46, is a former real estate agent and motivational speaker who later co-founded and sold two companies — one that provided technology and software training for the real estate industry and one that provided Internet services to real estate agents.
Two initial partners also helped Marth start Ku‘oko‘a. One is Richard Ha, owner of Hamakua Springs Country Farms on Hawaii island. Ha, who is Ku‘oko‘a’s board chairman, has researched alternative energy as a source for his business and is co-chairman of a state advisory group on geothermal energy.
Ku‘oko‘a’s other initial partner is Ted Peck, who quit his job as the state’s energy administrator to become company president. Peck, among other things, directed Hawaii’s Clean Energy Initiative.
Marth has said Ku‘oko‘a has been belittled as a plan by a motivational speaker, a tomato farmer and a bureaucrat. He told the Rotary Club audience that the founding partners have a lot of talent and drive that is now being combined with board members and others on Ku‘oko‘a’s team to move the initiative forward.
"We’re not just the tomato farmer and the bureaucrat and the motivational speaker trying to buy an electric utility," Marth said. "That’s not what we’re about. We’re a bunch of really, really smart, determined people with a little bit of money who are trying to build a new industry in Hawaii."