Blue Planet Sets Up The Pieces For a Greener Future

Metro-122515-Feature-HenkRogers-BC-9The fact that this hardly seemed fair was the first thought that came to Henk Rogers mid-heart attack, as he lay in the back of an ambulance en route to the hospital. It had only been three months prior that Rogers had made a hugely profitable deal, selling his mobile phone gaming company — a company whose games included Tetris, which Rogers had been responsible for popularizing. He hadn’t even spent any of that money yet. What kind of joke was this?

His second thought was that he wasn’t ready to go yet — he still had stuff to do.

“While I was recovering, I got to think about what do I mean by ‘stuff,'” Rogers recalls.

After all, he’d already hit most of life’s major checkpoints. He’d had a wildly successful career in the video game industry, starting with writing his own games, and later discovering and publishing Tetris. He’d married and had four kids, all of whom were grown by then. What else did he need to do?

The answer came to him while he was still in the hospital, reading the paper: “It was a small article in the back of the newspaper, and it said, ‘Oh by the way, we are going to kill all the coral in the world by the end of the century because we are dumping so much CO2 into the ocean,” he explains. “And I said, ‘No, we are not; this is not something that we are allowed to do.’

“I was pissed off that something that important would only make a tiny spot in the back of the newspaper, which basically meant that people didn’t give a crap about it,” he adds.

That was how Rogers identified what’s been his life mission since: to end dependence on fossil fuels globally. Of course, Rogers still is involved in the computer and video game industry. His daughter Maya has taken over as CEO of Blue Planet Software, the sole agent of Tetris, but he still maintains an active role in its operations. But when he talks about what he wants to accomplish before his time does come, the conversation turns to the environment.

“By the end of my lifetime, I would like the world to be mostly renewable energy,” he says.

Since that somewhat late-in-life realization, Rogers has become a leader in the clean energy movement. He founded Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit working toward achieving energy independence in Hawaii. Launched in 2005, shortly after Rogers’ heart attack, the organization has been instrumental in big strides for the state. As Rogers sees it, Hawaii can serve as a sort of blueprint for the rest of the world. First, the state. Then other islands. Then entire countries.

“I felt uncomfortable going to other places and asking other people to clean their room without us having cleaned our room here in Hawaii,” he explains. “We still aren’t very good stewards, I would say, with the amount of oil that we burn for transportation, for electricity — that really isn’t necessary, because we have so much renewable (energy) here.”

Blue Planet Foundation works toward that goal through a broad frame work — one that spans individual households, all the way through the policy level. It’s got a number of educational initiatives, including Island Pulse, which provides data on island energy usage. (As of the morning of Feb. 4, for instance, we were using 854 megawatts, with only 12 percent coming from clean energy, and the other 88 percent from fossil fuels.) Last fall, Blue Planet also hosted its inaugural Student Energy Summit, an experiential learning workshop to educate students on environmental issues. Community outreach efforts have included light-bulb exchanges, and a program that enables nonprofits to install energy-efficient measures as a way to save money.

Much of Blue Planet’s work takes place in the policy-advocacy realm — lobbying leaders to pass legislation that will expedite clean energy. One of its most notable achievements happened last spring, when the Legislature passed a bill committing to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. The bill, signed by Gov. David Ige, declares that state utilities will generate 100 percent of electricity sales by renewable energy sources by 2045.

“As the most oil dependent state in the nation, Hawaii spends roughly $5 billion a year on foreign oil to meet its energy needs,” Ige stated in a press release following the signing. “Making the transition to renewable, indigenous resources for power generation will allow us to keep more of that money at home, thereby improving our economy, environment and energy security.”

While Rogers is no longer involved in Blue Planet Foundation’s day-to-day operations, he is the board president and has a key role in its strategic vision.

“I would say he is the chief instigator,” says Blue Planet Foundation executive director Jeffrey Mikulina. “He is really the one who has a long view of these issues.”

Rogers himself is serving as an example of utilizing clean energy: He took his own homes off the grid a few years ago.

“That was just to find out how hard it actually is, and the answer is, it’s not that hard,” he says.

Now, his home in Tantalus and his ranch on Hawaii island both are entirely off the grid. At Tantalus, his house is an intricate system of inverters, batteries and solar panels that operate together. Part of that includes Blue Ion, a storage system he created to house excess alternative energy.

“I perceived that thing that was holding back renewables — meaning wind and solar, because they are intermittent — was storage,” he says.

So he went about creating his own storage, and last August, launched Blue Planet Energy Systems to bring Blue Ion to the market.

For something that he says is “not that hard,” it all seems elaborate. He goes on to admit that “easy is a relative term.”

“You know, compared to a lot of other things I have done in my life, this is easy. Chase a girl to Japan. Marry her. That’s hard,” he says with a laugh.

After meeting his now-wife Akemi while studying at University of Hawaii at Manoa, Rogers followed her on a move to Japan.

That was a move, however, he’d always intended to make. He had come to Hawaii from New York in the ‘70s as a teenager with his family for what was supposed to be a stopover on the way to moving to Japan. The stop turned into a year of the whole family living beach-side in Laie — much of which Rogers spent surfing and diving. (He credits that time with being part of the reason that reading that article about the dismal state of coral was so impactful all those years later.)

By the time his family was leaving for Japan, Rogers had already settled here, intent on staying at UH to pursue his chief interest: computer science.

While he never did end up graduating before running off to Japan (largely, he explains, because he only took courses he was interested in — astronomy, geology, oceanography, psychology, math, and every computer class he could find — and refused to take any core requirements), it was another hobby at UH that helped him capitalize on the computer-gaming business later: Dungeons and Dragons. (“You could say I majored in computer science and I minored in Dungeons and Dragons,” he jokes.)

When Rogers was living in Japan in the ‘80s, computer games began popping up on cassette tapes, and Rogers thought he’d try his luck at making a role-playing game. After some initial struggles, by 1984, Rogers’ Black Onyx was the No. 1 game in Japan.

He followed that by launching his own video game development company, writing another game, and later, traveling in search of other games to publish. It was on his travels, at the Consumer Electronics Show, that he discovered one he knew was a winner: Tetris.

“The way (CES) works is you have to stand in line for your turn to spend a couple of minutes trying to figure out whether you like this game or not. And there are, like, 1,000 monitors, and each one has 5-10 people waiting,” Rogers explains. “And so by the time I was in line on the Tetris machine for the fourth time, I knew there was something about this game. I was hooked. I was sucked into that game.”

That Rogers knew he had a successful game — Tetris went on to become an internationally recognizable product and has sold millions of copies — speaks to his seemingly preternatural business instincts. It’s an asset that Mikulina says Rogers brings to Blue Planet — even if his ideas occasionally seem off the wall.

“Sometimes, he has these crazy ideas,” Mikulina says. “We had one of them last year when we were pushing for the 100-percent bill — he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have the next generation, kids today, to draw what their energy future should look like?’ … When Henk brought it up, we were like, ‘eh, OK.’ But it turns out it was really well-received from the legislators.”

It was that kind of attitude, Mikulina says, that made him want to join Blue Planet in the first place.

“(Rogers) just effuses this positive, optimistic worldview,” Mikulina says. “And he has an audacious mission, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

As if the mission to end all fossil fuel usage on earth isn’t grand enough, Rogers has three more post-heart attack life missions that are perhaps even more sweeping: ending war (“Many people are involved trying to accomplish something, which is basically negative, rather than something that is for the future of mankind, or the future of the planet.”), making a backup of life on earth (“It’s like in the computer-gaming business … If your one hard disk fails and your entire project is sunk, are you kidding me? You are so fired.”), and to find out how the universe ends (“If we understand how the universe ends, then we will find some things about the nature of the universe that we just don’t have any understanding of now.”).

Remarkably, he’s been making progress with his goal of “backing up” life on earth — meaning that he wants to extend humanity to another planet, possibly Mars or the Moon. He’s had an integral role in designing and financing the Mars Habitat on Mauna Loa, which has a crew up there now figuring out the logistics of how to live on Mars.

For Rogers, another reason to bring space exploration to Hawaii is to give locals more opportunities to capitalize on high-paying STEM-related careers without having to leave home. To that end, Rogers launched Blue Startups, which he co-founded with daughter Maya, an accelerator that helps bolster early-stage tech companies, with a particular focus on those that can be based locally. Blue Startups has graduated 50 companies to date — with an impressive alumni roster that includes now-successful ventures like Volta Charging.

Currently, Blue Planet Foundation is starting to take steps to extend its mission globally. It’s in the process of reaching out to other Pacific islands — ones that also import fossil fuels and have a breadth of renewable energy sources — which Rogers sees as the next stepping stone to get entire countries off the grid.

It’s a huge goal — a fact even Rogers admits. But one that he knows is possible. Maybe it’s all those years of working with Tetris — but Rogers just seems to have a knack for seeing how everything fits together.

“He inspires all of us to just push ourselves in what is possible,” Mikulina says.

“(Rogers) doesn’t see the barriers, he sees the solutions,” he continues. “And he sees the potential of Hawaii being a place to really demonstrate what our sustainable future looks like.”

For more information on Blue Planet Foundation, visit blueplanetfoundation.org.