Com­mit­ment to clean en­ergy cre­ates eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - MONEY - LAU­REN TONOKAWA ——— Lau­ren Tonokawa is head of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team at the En­ergy Ex­cel­er­a­tor. She’s a grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of Hawaii. Reach her at lau­rentonokawa@gmail.com.

Dawn Lip­pert is CEO of Ele­men­tal Ex­cel­er­a­tor, a global growth ac­cel­er­a­tor founded and based in Hawaii, and chair­woman of the Hawaii Clean En­ergy Ini­tia­tive Ad­vi­sory Board, a hui of en­ergy stake­hold­ers lead­ing the state’s tran­si­tion off of fos­sil fu­els.

She has an affin­ity for in­no­va­tion be­cause she be­lieves in the power of in­no­va­tive think­ing to solve some of our big­gest prob­lems.

In­no­va­tion is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with change and risk, which can be scary be­cause the out­come is never cer­tain. But she took a chance in mov­ing to Hawaii and hasn’t looked back.

Ques­tion: Your hus­band is from Ten­nessee and you are from Seat­tle. How did you end up here?

An­swer: My first job was with Booz Allen’s en­ergy team in Washington, D.C. (af­ter re­lo­cat­ing from the West Coast). We were con­sul­tants to the Depart­ment of En­ergy on a first-of-its-kind col­lab­o­ra­tion with a U.S. state called the Hawaii Clean En­ergy Ini­tia­tive (HCEI). I was the only per­son at Booz Allen fa­mil­iar with Hawaii, hav­ing worked with the County of Hawaii to es­tab­lish a clean-en­ergy vi­sion in grad­u­ate school, and its unique en­ergy land­scape, so I was picked to staff the project. I spent two years com­mut­ing back and forth be­tween Washington, D.C., and Hawaii and never imag­ined mov­ing here.

Q: What changed that? A: While work­ing on

HCEI, I got to know Hawaii’s en­ergy ad­min­is­tra­tor, Mau­rice Kaya. Af­ter HCEI was signed into law, Mau­rice asked me to move out here, and I po­litely de­ferred. I had spent two years work­ing with the state on leg­is­la­tion that would be­come the na­tion’s most ag­gres­sive state en­ergy pol­icy and a few other bills that would help de­cou­ple Hawaii’s econ­omy from fos­sil fu­els. I thought my job was done.

Mau­rice ex­plained that he was leav­ing two decades at the state to start an ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­gram that would fund the growth of clean- en­ergy tech­nolo­gies. This was an op­por­tu­nity that could not only change Hawaii, but it could show the world that it is pos­si­ble for a com­mu­nity to in­no­vate its way to 100 per­cent re­new­able en­ergy. I knew that work­ing with Mau­rice would be an in­cred­i­ble gift, and he ex­plained to me that be­ing on the ground dur­ing this time in Hawaii’s jour­ney would be a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence. I packed up my apart­ment and my bi­cy­cle and made the move.

Q: To­day we’re more than a quar­ter of the way there. What’s the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our com­mit­ment to clean en­ergy and in­no­va­tion?

A: Our com­mit­ment to clean en­ergy has driven in­ter­est from some of the top en­ergy star­tups in the world to Hawaii, and in­spired the cre­ation of new com­pa­nies born here. If you use our (Ele­men­tal Ex­cel­er­a­tor’s) num­ber of ap­pli­cants as a gauge for mar­ket pull, we have seen it jump from 47 star­tups ap­ply­ing for our very first co­hort in 2012 to 450 last year. Com­pa­nies with new ideas and new tech­nolo­gies are re­ally in­ter­ested in this trans­for­ma­tion, and that’s ex­cit­ing.

Poli­cies like net en­ergy me­ter­ing at a state level and so­lar tax cred­its at the fed­eral and state lev­els — along­side technology im­prov­ing so that the price of so­lar dropped by more than 70 per­cent — con­trib­uted to a sharp in­crease in dis­trib­uted so­lar. To­day Hawaii has more than 800 GWh (gi­gawatt-hour) of dis­trib­uted so­lar on our grid, about 9 per­cent of elec­tric­ity sales. With that amount of so­lar, we need stor­age to cap­ture en­ergy from the sun dur­ing the day and store it for when we need it at night. We have funded projects for com­pa­nies like Stem and Am­ber Ki­net­ics — with Hawai­ian Elec­tric — to in­stall bat­ter­ies in com­mer­cial build­ings and fly­wheels at a util­ity gen­er­a­tion sta­tion.

Q: How do star­tups and clean en­ergy trans­late to eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and jobs?

A: In­no­va­tion is not re­ally about technology; it’s ac­tu­ally about en­abling peo­ple of this and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to have jobs that pos­i­tively im­pact our com­mu­nity. Of the 63 star­tups we work with at Ele­men­tal Ex­cel­er­a­tor, there are 24 com­pa­nies with cur­rent ac­tive op­er­a­tions in Hawaii and 55 full­time em­ploy­ees call­ing Hawaii home. Four com­pa­nies have opened new of­fices here and hired lo­cal team mem­bers — elec­tri­cians, en­gi­neers, farm­ers, tech­ni­cians, writ­ers, at­tor­neys, in­terns. These are the ac­tual faces of in­no­va­tion and peo­ple build­ing our fu­ture — not only in en­ergy, but also in agri­cul­ture, water and trans­porta­tion.

Q: Any fi­nal thoughts? A: When I woke up on June 9, 2015, the morn­ing af­ter Gov. David Ige signed a law in­creas­ing our re­new­able-en­ergy goal to 100 per­cent, I re­al­ized that I needed to dou­ble down on our work. Although set­ting goals can be chal­leng­ing, build­ing sys­tems to achieve them is even tougher. … In Hawaii, ev­ery day we wait means we burn more oil and send more hard-earned money over­seas. The good news is that ev­ery hard step we take now, both as in­di­vid­u­als and col­lec­tively, makes our com­mu­nity cleaner and more pros­per­ous, and brings our goal closer to re­al­ity.

COURTESY PHOTO

Dawn Lip­pert

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