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The Future’s So Bright…
February 17, 2010
By Melissa Moniz

Starting out as a teenager with a ‘crazy’ idea, Darren Kimura now has three renewable energy companies

“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi

Darren T. Kimura “walks the talk” – and then some.

A visionary and innovator, at 35 years old Kimura is the founder of three of Hawaii’s most prominent renewable energy companies: Energy Industries, Sopogy and Keahole Solar Power.

To date, his companies have saved Hawaii just short of $1 billion in energy costs, and have cut yearly oil imports by roughly 10,000 barrels of oil a year.

And he’s just getting started.

“Our goal is to save Hawaii several billion dollars at some point,” says Kimura, a born-and-raised Hilo boy. “In Hawaii, we’re maybe 13 percent energy independent, and my mission is to move the needle to well over 50 percent (energy independent). We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think we’ll get there.”

Darren Kimura stands among 1,000 SopoNova solar collectors in Kona. The project, Holaniku at Keahole Point, is the world’s first MicroCSP solar farm. Photo by Kathy Best

And he has the knowhow, drive, passion and experience to back it up.

It all began with a 19-year-old and a mission – to convince people that global warming was real, that energy was becoming expensive and something could be done about it. That was 1994 and the inception of his first company, Energy Conservation and Management Hawaii (ECMH), now called Energy Industries.

Energy Industries is an energy project developer that focuses on efficiency and renewable solutions to help large businesses with their energy problems. EI brings energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions to customers as a comprehensive offering.

“What that means is they will go into a large business and look at everything that uses energy and figure out ways to use less energy,” says Kimura. “For example, changing the air conditioning or lighting systems. Through these retrofits the customer can reduce their bill up to 50 percent. So it’s a very effective way for customers to save money.

“When I started Energy Industries, I was driving around in my car trying to convince people of this idea, and the response I got about 80-90 percent of the time was, ‘You’re nuts,'” says Kimura, a Waiakea High School grad. “People have called me crazy. But I believed in our work and kept at it, and over time business got better.”

The company later expanded throughout the state, then to the West Coast, and today has offices in Seattle, Spokane, Portland, Boise, San Francisco and throughout Hawaii. Corporate clients include Boeing, Macy’s and Starwood Hotels.

But this success only came after its fair share of usual entrepreneurial bumps and bruises, which Kimura says are necessary.

A college student at the time, Kimura skillfully juggled earning bachelor’s degrees in business and engineering, while building his company.

“Starting at 19 years old was challenging,” he admits. “I was irrelevant to the business community at 19. They saw a young kid with a crazy idea and poor timing. The lessons learned were valuable, and I soon figured out how to create value in the business and to tell my story better. This ultimately gave me the courage to branch out from Hawaii and expand our business globally.”

Energy Industries’efforts to make saving energy simple have been recognized with awards such as Trade Ally of the Year 2005 (Hawaiian Electric) and Technology Company of the Year 2007 (Pacific Technology Foundation).

“Business is hard, and anyone who tells you starting and growing a business isn’t hard is either lying or they’re about to be severely disappointed,” says Kimura. “Not one good entrepreneur I know says it’s easy, particularly if you’re starting from scratch. When you’re in the start-up phase you will be tested almost daily. In my career I’ve wanted to give up so many times. but when you believe that what you’re doing is more than making a check, that helps a lot.”

Kimura and Kip Dopp look over Sopogy project plans, Photo by Nathalie Walker

It took about eight years before Energy Industries took off, but when it did Kimura was already looking ahead, and in 2002 Sopogy was born.

“It was through Energy Industries that we found the need for a more energy-efficient solar technology that was more reliable than conventional photovoltaics (PV),” says Kimura

“Sopogy” is derived from the company’s key words – solar power technology. It is a leader in MicroCSP technologies that bring the economics of proven large-scale concentrated solar power systems (CSP) to the distributed generation markets. MicroCSP technologies are used to create steam, solar air conditioning or electrical power. Sopogy is focused on bringing a new renewable energy technology to the market, using its solar energy systems (SopoNova, SopoFlare and SopoLite) to produce electricity.

“Basically we invented a panel (SopoNova), which uses mirrors to concentrate and intensify the energy of the sun,” says Kimura. “The panels also follow the sun all day long, so as the sun moves through the sky, the mirror follows the sun. Our mirrors reflect sunlight into a pipe where we circulate a heat-transfer liquid. The liquid is used to create steam. Once we have steam, we can create electricity. In addition to the panel we invented the computer-based controls and software to operate the system.”

The result is maximized energy production (two to three times more effective than static solar panels seen on home roofs) while minimizing costs.

The system also has energy storage, almost like a battery, except it isn’t stored in electricity, it’s stored in heat, making it a lot more efficient. This means more energy stored for a longer period of time with a very low cost.

“When you combine the solar collector and the storage, we have a solution that’s very helpful to utilities and valuable to customers,” says Kimura. “Our solar farms can offset one utility generator. The eventual goal is that we’ll have so many of these solar farms out there allowing us to eliminate all fossil fuel generators. This will help Hawaii become more energy independent.

“We spend about $7 billion a year for oil. The oil comes in tankers mostly from foreign soil, and once we burn the oil we need more. So we continue to spend that $7 billion every year. The idea behind what we’re trying to do is to keep some if not all of that $7 billion in the state through energy independence.”

Check out Sopogy’s list of accolades:Venture Capital Association Deal of the Year 2007, National Society of Professional Engineers New Product of the Year 2008, Innovation Company of the Year 2008 (Pacific Business News) and Gold Medal for Energy Product of the Year by Plant Engineering 2009.

“We’ve done all our research and development in Hawaii, and when we invented the technology it was built for Hawaii, but over the years we’ve realized that it has global market potential,” says Kimura. “Today we have projects in the Middle East, Spain, India and throughout the U.S.”

The need to build such projects turned into another business for Kimura in 2007: “Keahole Solar Power is the developer of large utility-grade projects,” he adds. “Sopogy makes the panel, but Keahole Solar Power builds the renewable energy projects.”

Its first groundbreaking project is Holaniku at Keahole Point, the world’s first MicroCSP solar farm, located at the Natural Energy Laboratory in Kona.

The 2 megawatt thermal energy project, which spans 3.8 acres, utilizes 1,000 Sopogy proprietary MicroCSP solar panels (SopoNova). The farm produces 500 kilowatts of energy, enough to power roughly 200 homes. Holaniku feeds power directly into the HELCO grid and reduces the need to import more than 2,000 barrels of oil annually, and will reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 6,000 tons over 30 years.

The staff of Sopogy and Energy Industries Hawaii gather outside their Mapunapuna offices. Pictured are (front, from left) Ester Voigtel, Tessie Kotrys, Diane Manzini, Rochelle Santana, Arlene Sarte, Pamela Joe, Sher Komoda, (back) Eric Beal, Peter Sugimura, Jim Maskrey, Jennifer Names, Srivinas Vemuri, Brandon Hayashi, James Duca , Xudong Wang, Jon Ishikawa, Ryan Kohatsu, Tim Wong, Kip Dopp and Darren Kimura

“Keahole Solar Power is looking to develop other projects through Hawaii, some even on Oahu,” says Kimura. “Our next project is currently planned to be about 10 times the size of Holaniku.”

Through his many companies, Kimura strives to take big bites out of global warming. But he also believes it needs to be done on a smaller scale.

Just last November, Sopogy introduced the SopoFlare, a scaled-down version of the SopoNova designed for either residential or light commercial use, and also the SopoLite, a pint-sized solar thermal energy collection unit that can provide 2 kilowatts of power or mobile water desalination capability. The unit can be trailer mounted and towed behind vehicles going into war or disaster zones. The U.S. Department of Defense and FEMA are expected to be among the first customers.

“It’s really polarizing to see where the attitude of being ‘green’is today compared to how it was when I first got started,” says Kimura. “Today, it’s hip to be green, I’m not complaining because it helps capture the public’s attention. More importantly being green will always be the right thing to do, whether it’s fad or not in fad.

“To me, the way you live your life has everything to do with the way you run your company. So we’ve always been extremely energy efficient. We’ve always had an energy-efficient home, consume organic foods, drive a hybrid vehicle, all the way down to the use of organic cleaners. I try to ride my bike to work when possible.”

Kimura admits that his commitment to reduce global warming and Hawaii’s dependence on foreign oil wasn’t a childhood ambition.

“I think it was all my mom and dad’s fault,” says Kimura jokingly of the transition to an energy entrepreneur role. His parents owned an electrical contracting company in Hilo.

“From an early age they had me sweeping up project sites, wiring homes, helping with accounting and learning about the energy industry the hard way.

Working for the family business made me unemployable by others, as I needed to be constantly doing things my way, so it was obvious I needed to go into my own business.

“I also like to move quickly and see things happen. I think the problems that we have today require fast action. So, when you work for yourself, you have the ability to do that.”

It’s this steadfast attitude that has earned Kimura numerous awards and recognition, including Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year 2000 from Ernst and Young, Top 40 under Forty 2000 from Pacific Business News, SBA Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2002 for California, Hawaii and Arizona from the Small Business Administration, Technology Leader of the Year 2006 from the Technology Foundation, Green Entrepreneur of 2007 from Hawaii Business, and the Honua (Earth) Award for Clean Energy from the Blue Planet Foundation.

Through his outreach, Kimura has donated more than $100,000 to the energy improvements in dorm rooms, state facilities, classrooms for universities, public schools and nonprofits in Hawaii and throughout the U.S. and the Pacific.

“We now understand the damage that we’ve done to the world, and I think through that process it made me a lot more aware, too,” he says. “Hurricane Katrina and recently Haiti have made me concerned that could happen here. We can no longer look the other way because it’s happening all over the world.”

Kimura continues on his mission to break down barriers, taking on the challenges of what he says are based on a lot of misinformation.

“People are saying it can’t be done, that it’s impossible, that it’s not technically realistic – yet it is,” says Kimura. “So problem No. 1 is realizing that we can get it done. It’s going to take work and it’s going to take a lot of smart people working on complicated challenges, but we can get there.

“I think other things that are involved here are policies that were put in place in the ’50s – these are old policies. Those laws were made during a time when the problems we face today weren’t yet big problems and the technologies to solve them didn’t exist. Policies once in place are hard to change, so that’s another big problem we have today. The reality is that the only future we have is through change.”

Clocking in an average 90- to 100-hour work week, Kimura is an agent of change, which he says begins and ends with innovation. “Our companies are very innovative, and I think innovation is a term that we need to talk about more,” he adds. “Innovation means changing the way things are today. Innovation does mean taking risks, which will sometimes lead to failure, but we need to celebrate the failure and the success.”

Kimura laughs when asked if he has plans to start other businesses and quickly replies, “My hands are pretty full, but you never know.”

Never count this guy out. It’s his stay-ahead attitude that has built billion-dollar companies that more importantly have been influential in millions of dollars in energy savings.

“I think, for me, there’s always going to be more to achieve, as I’m always looking for the imperfections or flaws,” he adds. “We’ll never get anything perfect, but life is about setting and resetting your goals.”

Shrinking CSP to scale new markets

2 November 2009

Shifting the focus from utility-scale CSP projects, CSP Today talks to Darren Kimura, CEO of Sopogy, about the advantages of micro CSP.

By Rikki Stancich

Micro CSP technologies are leveraging the economics of proven large scale CSP for application in the distributed generation markets. The market potential is vast.

CSP Today talks to Darren Kimura about why CSP technology has the technological and economic edge over its PV competitors in this space.

CSP Today: Sopogy has developed a ‘micro’ CSP system. What are the advantages of going small?

Darren Kimura: We’ve taken the large-scale parabolic trough technology and reduced its size – we’ve changed the position of the receiver and reduced the size of the reflector frame, which in itself reduces manufacturing costs.

So, there is a new frame, tracker, algorithms and a different temperature. And rather than running off a steam turbine, we use an organic ranking cycle, or ORC.

The ORC win is that it doesn’t use steam, it uses the temperature difference between fluids in a closed loop. In other words, we don’t have the high water requirement of the large-scale desert projects that run off steam engines.

And because the ORC can continue to operate at lower temperatures (unlike a steam turbine, which shuts off if the steam temperature drops) there are much lower operating costs and maintenance costs involved.

The ORC could be operating at 10 percent of its operating efficiency and the engine would still continue to operate. In other words, it can operate in cloudier places than the large-scale desert systems.

CSP Today:  A system with a lower insolation requirement must be adaptable to a wider market than large-scale CSP. Can you expand on which markets you are targeting? 

Darren Kimura: ORCs are smaller, so rather than competing with the likes of Solel or Solar Millennium, we focus on the distributor-generator market. The units can be situated nearer to city grids, on buildings. We are targeting the 2-5 MW market.

While the current competitors are the PV market, the ORC system is 10-15 percent cheaper and it produces more energy. It has a tracker and storage built-in to the system and can be used for steam production or water heating.

The market we are focusing on is the commercial and industrial sector – the big energy users. This market represents some US$750 billion, but the current market penetration is less than 1 percent.

On a global scale, we are looking at the US and international high energy cost markets – and of course, markets where there is sun.

CSP Today: What are the drawbacks of smaller-scale ORC systems compared to steam systems?

Darren Kimura: It is twice the cost of steam (if the steam systems have perfect direct normal irradiation, or DNI). But then again, these systems need to have perfect DNI to run efficiently and there are only a handful of places around the globe that can offer those conditions. The big guys are searching for perfect DNI because turbines only work on or off – if a cloud passes overhead, the system shuts down.

Most cities are not in high DNI environments, which is why large CSP doesn’t get there.

CSP Today: What are the cost benefits of using an ORC system?

Darren Kimura: With large utility-scale projects, the minimum size needed to recoup the project costs is around 100 MW. With the Micro system, the reduced size means there is a fewer number of welds and steel components.

Because the system can operate at lower temperatures, we don’t need to employ highly skilled steam contractors. Instead, we use standard plumbing contractors, which reduces the costs three-fold.

Finally, we combine the energy output from the system. In the desert you create power and heat. Normally the heat gets dumped. We capture the heat and use it for something else. In other words, we provide the client with an added form of energy saving.

So, the lowered cost of the collector; modular technology; and energy streams, combine to equal a competitive solution.

Enterprise Honolulu adds four to board

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pacific Business News (Honolulu)

Enterprise Honolulu has named four new members to its board of directors.

The nonprofit economic development organization this week added:

  • Robin Campaniano, who retired as president and CEO of Farmers Insurance Hawaii Co. this month following 17 years with the company. He is a general partner in the Ulupono Initiative.
  • Darren Kimura, founder and president of Honolulu-based solar energy firm Sopogy.
  • Nelson Lau, partner of tax and advisory firm KPMG.
  • David Tumilowicz, publisher of Hawaii Business magazine.

“The new board members will help us build bridges to various interest groups and decision-makers across Honolulu and help us build the consensus to take action on our key economic objectives,” board chairman Robbie Alm, executive vice president of Hawaiian Electric Co., said in a prepared statement.

From its start in 2001, Enterprise Honolulu has had the goal of creating and retaining high-paying jobs and diversifying economic opportunities for Oahu.

LA Times: For Hawaii, big push to go green is natural

LATimes

ENERGY

The resource-rich state depends almost entirely on imported oil to fuel its vehicles and stoke its power plants. It aims to obtain 70% of its total energy needs from clean sources within 20 years.

By Alana Semuels reporting from kona, hawaiiFebruary 4, 2010

LATimesTake a ride in Ron Baird’s pickup truck along the volcanic shore of Hawaii’s Big Island and he’ll show you an inventor’s wonderland.

On one parcel of this government-created energy laboratory, rows of mirrors shine white-hot in the sun, turning heat into energy. On another, brown water tanks harbor strands of algae that will be made into fuel. Nearby is a wind turbine whose blades spin parallel to the ground.

“It’s an awesome amount of things going on here,” said Baird, chief executive of Natural Energy Research Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, which is helping to nurture 42 green private-sector businesses on 877 acres of land in Kona.

Watch out, California.

Tiny Hawaii is gunning for the title of the nation’s green energy capital. It’s aiming to obtain 70% of its total energy needs from clean sources within 20 years.

That ambitious target blows the solar panels off California’s mandate to get a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020. But Hawaiian officials have concluded their state has little choice.

This tropical paradise is an energy beggar that depends almost solely on oil to fuel its vehicles and stoke its power plants. That’s left the state, which doesn’t produce a drop of crude, vulnerable to spills, price swings and geopolitics. Hawaii residents already pay the highest pump prices and electricity rates in the country. The state imports around 51 million barrels of oil, costing billions annually, according to government figures.

“We really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Jeff Kissel, chief executive of the Gas Co. of Hawaii. “What’s happening to us with oil is going to happen to the rest of the country as . . . supplies diminish.”

More worrisome still is global warming. The threat of rising seas and pounding storms linked to climate change has put Hawaii on a collision course with Mother Nature.

Although Hawaii’s efforts to green itself won’t make much of a dent in the world’s total carbon emissions, environmentalists hope the state can prove what’s possible. The goal is to transform the nation’s most energy-dependent state into its cleanest and most sustainable.

“We’re adopting policies and technologies here that can serve as a model for the rest of the globe,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawaii clean energy advocacy group.

The state this year began requiring that all new homes be built with solar water heaters. Hawaii is working with electric transport firm Better Place of Palo Alto to build a network of recharging stations to jump-start mass use of electric vehicles on the islands. Meanwhile, the state’s public utilities commission is devising a compensation system to encourage homeowners and businesses to go solar by paying them to generate green electricity.

The policies stem from an agreement Hawaii signed with the Department of Energy in 2008. The state pledged to obtain 70% of its total energy needs by 2030 — 40% from renewable electricity generation and the remaining 30% from energy efficiency. Known as the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, that agreement has since been strengthened with binding legislation that exceeds California’s mandate to get 33% of its electricity from renewables by 2020 (though Hawaii has an extra decade to get there).

About 6.5% of Hawaii’s electricity came from renewable sources other than hydroelectric power in 2007, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s about half what California — the nation’s solar champion and a major player in wind and geothermal energy — has achieved.

But experts said Hawaii’s small size and unique geography could prove advantageous in the race for energy independence. With just 1.3 million inhabitants, its energy consumption is small. The islands have abundant solar, wind, geothermal and wave resources. And Hawaiians are less likely to object to the cost of renewables since they already pay high energy prices.

“It’s easier for Hawaii to pull this off than anyone else,” said Alison Silverstein, an independent consultant and onetime energy regulator. “They know how bad things can get, and they are highly motivated . . . to take action.”

Some of Hawaii’s projects might sound like the stuff of science fiction. The state is looking into building a 30-mile undersea cable to link proposed wind farms on Lanai and Molokai into the electric grids on Oahu and Maui. A local company is working to provide air conditioning in 40 downtown Honolulu buildings using chilly sea water pumped from three miles out in the ocean. And Hawaii’s own Gas Co. is using municipal solid waste and animal fat to make synthetic natural gas to supply energy to its customers.

“If Saudi Arabia is rich in oil, you could use the analogy that Hawaii is rich in renewable resources,” said Will Rolston, energy coordinator for the County of Hawaii, which comprises the state’s Big Island.

The Big Island’s grid already obtains about one-third of its power from renewables, Rolston said, including solar, wind and geothermal. It’s also at the forefront of some of Hawaii’s biggest experiments, thanks in part to the Natural Energy Research Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

In addition to its role as a green business incubator, the lab is a leading center for research on generating electricity by exploiting temperature differences between deep and shallow layers of seawater, a process known as ocean thermal energy conversion.

The research laboratory is also a showplace for innovations including seawater air conditioning. That technology uses cold, deep ocean water to cool the freshwater that circulates in a building’s air-conditioning system, eliminating the need for power-sucking chillers.

Baird likes to say that his office, which, like other buildings at the research laboratory, uses the ocean air-conditioning system, “is so cold I could lease it to Costco to store lettuce.”

Hawaii’s other islands are getting on board. Military family housing being built on Oahu will have meters in every home so that residents can tell how much energy they’re using and compare it with their neighbor’s usage. Such peer pressure has been proven to encourage conservation.

The military is also experimenting with electricity-generating turbines off the coast of Oahu that harness energy from ocean waves.

Some Hawaii residents are dubious about their state’s big ambitions. The undersea cable proposal and a plan to build a commuter rail line have stirred concerns about cost. A survey by the Blue Planet Foundation found that residents rated energy independence behind other important issues including jobs, healthcare and traffic congestion.

Some proactive homeowners, such as Karen Young and Fred Dodge, said they’ve been scorned for making the switch to clean energy. The couple spent $23,000 to put solar panels on their house in an Oahu neighborhood. Some neighbors sniffed that only rich people could afford such a luxury.

The family’s utility bill dropped from $110 a month to about $23, Young said. Then a tropical storm blew through and knocked out the power in the neighborhood for a day. Other homes in the neighborhood went dark, but the Young-Dodge household was still running.

Having a working refrigerator and lights was proof enough that they’d done the right thing, Young said, even if none of their neighbors followed suit.

“In the night, the electricity had gone off and everyone was having problems,” Young said. “But we were still lit.”

alana.semuels@latimes.com
Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times