‘Tetris’ entrepreneur unveils new solar battery venture

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More than 20 years ago, video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers popularized “Tetris,” a strategic game that requires players to make efficient use of alternating puzzle pieces as they perpetually fall from the sky.

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More than 20 years ago, video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers popularized “Tetris,” a strategic game that requires players to make efficient use of alternating puzzle pieces as they perpetually fall from the sky.

Now, the 61-year-old hopes the work he’s been doing at his energy lab on the Big Island will help provide the pieces to solve a much more complex puzzle — energy independence.

Rogers announced Monday his new company, Blue Planet Energy Systems, which will sell and install battery systems for homes and businesses running on solar technology. He expects to begin sales Aug. 1. He declined to say how much the systems would cost, but said there will be a five- to seven-year return on the investment for a typical project that his company will install.

For the last year, he has tested his Blue Ion System in his 6,000-square-foot home on Oahu. It uses Sony lithium ion iron phosphate batteries, which can last for 20 years and do not require cooling, unlike competing battery storage systems such as Tesla’s recently announced Powerwall system, he said.

Blue Ion was developed within an energy lab at Rogers’ Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a Ranch, located near the Big Island Country Club in Kailua-Kona. The entire 32-acre property has operated completely off the grid for the last three years, generating 85 kilowatts of electricity using a 360-panel solar array.

“We’ve been experimenting with off-grid living there,” Rogers said Monday. “We have an executive retreat there, with four buildings … and 11 suites. The system is built for when we get all the suites and the entire ranch full. That’s our worst-case scenario. On a typical day, we’re using nowhere near that. We’re usually at 20 or 25 percent.”

The battery system can hold about 100 kilowatt hours of energy, or about 10 times what the typical residential home would require to operate off the grid, he said.

Rogers’ new business venture began as a hobby after a 2006 heart attack that nearly ended his life. As he recovered, he read about the loss of the world’s coral reefs because of ocean acidification, which has been linked to climate change and rising carbon levels in the oceans.

That was when he decided “we’re going to end the use of carbon-based fuel, and that is my mission No. 1,” he said.

His research led to taking Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a Ranch and his Oahu home off the grid, but after showing the system at the ranch to family and friends, “that’s when we realized there was a business opportunity,” he said.

Hawaii Island residents’ own energy situation served as an important catalyst in the development of Blue Ion, he added.

“On the Big Island, we should have the cheapest rates of anywhere in the state,” Rogers said. “We have the most availability of wind and solar. And geothermal, (the untapped use of) which I think is kind of a little crime. We went to Iceland … and using geothermal they produce four or five times more electricity than they need. …

“Why are we playing around with 38 megawatts out of Puna Geothermal (Venture)? That is so manini compared to what we could be producing. I’m a little frustrated with it. We have all this potential on the Big Island.”

That potential largely has been prevented from becoming reality because of poor battery technology. Partnering with Sony, Rogers thinks the batteries can be a solution to the long-standing problem of storing the sun’s energy and helping lower energy costs in Hawaii.

Sony has been developing lithium ion batteries since 1991, and the company’s lithium iron phosphate technology improves upon the batteries’ ability to last, Rogers said.

“They came out with this battery chemistry in 2009, and they’ve been testing it every since. They’ve already tested past 8,000 cycles, which is 20 years (of typical use),” he said.

Sony offers a 10-year warranty on the batteries, he added.

In the Blue Ion system, the batteries store energy from solar panels, allowing people to use it at night without having to rely on expensive energy from the grid.

Rogers’ company will sell and install the battery systems for commercial and residential use, supplying everything from the housing to the software to monitoring and maintaining the systems.

Robert Harris, a spokesman for the Alliance for Solar Choice, a solar advocacy group, said consumers haven’t had much call to invest in battery storage systems because of the cost and incentive programs that encourage people to stay linked to the grid.

Harris, who also is the director of public policy at Sunrun, a solar equipment supplier in Honolulu, said homeowners with solar panels typically put energy into the grid and take it back as needed, something called net metering.

“A lot of energy can be put into the grid right now, so it hasn’t been a big incentive necessarily for a homeowner to invest in storage,” Harris said. That could change in the next few months with several new systems besides Rogers’ expected to hit the market.

“These products will be capable of storing and putting out energy on a daily basis at a fairly reasonable price point,” Harris said.

Rogers is famous for discovering the video game “Tetris” more than 20 years ago. He now manages the worldwide rights for the game along with his business partner, Alexey Pajitnov, who wrote the program.

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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