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Anne Arquit Niederberger6/24/17 12:00 AM4 min read

Catching the VERGE innovation wave

Sitting on my lanai overlooking Waikiki Beach, reflecting on what I experienced over the past three days at VERGE HI — and cognizant of the uncomfortable truth that sea level is expected to rise a foot by 2045 (above the 2011 level!), regardless of what we do — three necessities come to mind:

Sustained leadership

In June 2015, the Hawai‘i State Legislature took the bold step of making Hawai‘i the first state in the nation to set a 100% renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for the electricity sector. An inspiring vision. And there has been some momentum, keeping the dream alive since then. The State of Hawai‘i is on track to meet its 2020 interim goal of 30% renewables, while Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative has already exceeded 40%.

But that was the easy part. Getting to 100% (not 90 or 95%), with a large share of solar and wind, on a set of islands hosting a population nearing 1.5 million, isn’t trivial.

Fortunately, Governor Ige demonstrated in his opening address to VERGE delegates that his commitment has deep roots (he conducted research on ice storage air conditioning as a budding engineer) and that he’s more determined than ever to pave the way for a clean energy future that Hawai‘i’s economy is dependent on. This sentiment was echoed by tourism industry leaders.

Clean energy is not only critical to ensure sustainability; it is also increasingly considered to be a new tourism asset — alongside beautiful beaches, welcoming residents and authentic Hawaiian culture.


There were different views about the need for a “technology breakthrough”. On the one hand, Hawaii faces numerous unsolved challenges on the path to 100%; on the other, the State is investing in an innovation economy — and new solutions from around the globe, spanning energy supply and energy demand, are finding their way to Hawai‘i.

The VERGE HI Startup Showcase, Interconnect Expo and Accelerate startup competition — with Buoy Labs and Solstice taking top honors — highlighted cutting-edge thinking and technology to address big issues in practical ways, most of which made use of online platforms as user interfaces.

Elemental Excelerator — a homegrown non-profit with a mission to help startups succeed and transform communities through innovation — had an influential presence, and is regarded as a critical player in Hawai‘i’s innovation landscape, not the least because of the emphasis on place-based innovation. Hawai‘i really is special.

Without wanting to trivialize them, the general sentiment among the VERGE crowd was that neither technology nor regulatory challenges — both of which led to some great debates on the podium and stimulating exchanges on solutions during the breaks — were insurmountable.
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HECO planning principles: “The energy transformation must include everyone”

From remarks made by Alan Oshima (President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Company) — as well as senior government officials, regulators and community activists — there appeared to be nearly universal recognition that the decisive factor in determining the success or failure of the sustainable Hawai‘i endeavour will be winning the hearts, minds and cooperation of individuals.


Ramsay Taum of PBR HAWAII & Associates won the prize for “best conference metaphor” with his vision that everyone needs to come together and “get on the same canoe” with a common destination in mind. This was particularly apt, given that the first day of VERGE HI coincided with the return of the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa to Hawaiʻi, concluding a successful 42,000-mile Worldwide Voyage, something that had never been achieved before.

While Solar Impulse’s round-the-world sun-powered airplane journey took a high-tech approach to building global support for efforts to protect the climate system and exemplified how new thinking can solve seemingly intractable technical challenges, the Hōkūleʻa voyage relied on ancient Polynesian wayfinding techniques and spread the message of Mālama Honua (caring for Island Earth).

Achieving a 100% clean energy future for Hawaiʻi will require the technological innovations symbolized by Solar Impulse and the values that inspired the Hōkūleʻa voyage. As Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, said: “Our voyage continues. We must keep inspiring the stewardship of our earth, perpetuation of our culture and learning how to care for environment and the people around us.”

Returning to the mundane world of consumer products, as Enervee’s CEO, Matthias Kurwig, said in his VERGE Talk, we believe the vast majority of people are willing to do the right thing — if nudged and guided a bit. You can see the video of his talk here.

My humble contribution was to join Greg Kiker of Energy Focus (the guys who make specialized LEDs for submarines and gave out those cool sunglasses) and Elaine Miller of NEEA on an innovation panel ably moderated by Caroline Carl from Hawai‘i Energy, where I talked about how a simple energy score — which renders efficiency visible — can serve as a driver for fundamental utility sector innovation, based on a new relationship between energy providers and their customers.

VERGE HI was a great inspiration and opportunity for Enervee to board the canoe destined for a Hawaii clean energy future — mahalo and kudos to the entire GreezBiz team — and we’ll be working hard to be in a position to unveil a clean energy Marketplace for Hawai‘i at VERGE HI 2018!