Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Renewable Energy is the new High Tech for Hawaii

For the past 20 years, the State of Hawaii has pursued the development of a high tech industry to counterbalance our economic dependence on tourism, with mixed results.  Proponents of software-based companies note that these products are environmentally friendly, can be developed in any location, and bring in highly-skilled, highly paid jobs to the State.

These advantages are all true, and there are some notable high tech success stories.  Unfortunately, while Hawaii is well-suited to high tech, high tech may not be well suited to Hawaii.  The location-independence of software development means that it is just as easy to migrate high tech jobs out of Hawaii as it is to move them here, as is demonstrated by the frequent relocation of locally started high tech companies to California.

The problem is that the "value proposition" for locating the typical high tech company in Hawaii is weak: our cost of living is higher than the mainland, we are isolated and at least a five hour plane ride away from other companies, the number of qualified high tech professionals here is limited, and the physical geography of Hawaii does not provide a competitive advantage.

As a State and community, we now have an incredible opportunity before us:  the development of a new industry that can provide an alternative to tourism, and for which all of the traditional disadvantages of Hawaii suddenly become advantages.  That industry is renewable energy.  Here are some of the compelling value propositions for this industry in Hawaii:

1. Our geography is an advantage: Hawaii is "world class" with respect to its renewable energy resources.  There is no other single place on Earth with Hawaii's simultaneous availability of wind, wave, geothermal, and solar energy resources. That means we can work on multiple fronts, and explore complementary combinations of renewable energy. It also means that renewable energy companies started in Hawaii will tend to stay in Hawaii: there is a geographic disadvantage to moving them elsewhere.

2. Our high cost of living is an advantage: it makes it easier to make renewable energy economically viable.  We currently pay $0.25 per kWh, almost twice the cost on the mainland.  Furthermore, that cost can rise dramatically with increases in oil prices.  This means that alternative energies become cost-effective in Hawaii much sooner than on the mainland, making it easier to start businesses in renewable energy in Hawaii.

3. Our isolation is an advantage: our energy grid is autonomous.  On the mainland, all of the electrical grids are interconnected and many times larger than Hawaii's.  The fact that our grid is small and isolated makes us better suited to innovation; we provide a natural "laboratory" for experimentation with renewable energy sources.

4. The small number of high tech professionals in Hawaii is not a disadvantage: Renewable energy jobs are not just located in cubicles.  Unlike high tech software jobs, renewable energy jobs span the gamut from "high tech" engineering and business to "traditional tech" such as carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. A renewable energy industry creates jobs across the socio-economic spectrum of Hawaii.

5. A renewable energy industry creates a "virtuous circle" of economic development.  The development of a renewable energy industry has a singularly positive effect on our economy for one simple but profound reason:  every kilowatt-hour of energy created by local, renewable energy sources is one less kilowatt-hour of energy we pay for with foreign oil.  In addition to the positive environmental consequences, this means that every dollar generated by renewable energy is a dollar kept in Hawaii and not exported elsewhere.  Currently, out of our $60B gross domestic product, almost $8B is "bled away" to pay for foreign oil. Returning almost 15% of our GDP to Hawaii could enable us to improve government services while reducing our tax burden.   Renewable energy provides an unparalleled potential for economic development as it can simultaneously create jobs and reduce the flow of money away from our islands.

Creating a renewable energy industry in Hawaii requires vision and leadership from our political representatives and our educational institutions, but it is possible.   In general, we must create a legal and regulatory framework that enables energy innovation and provide workforce training for those who wish to pursue careers in this area.

Here are concrete steps we can take, starting today:

1. Ask the political candidates how they will further a renewable energy industry in Hawaii.  This election season provides an opportunity to raise the profile of this issue.

2. Lobby your representative for new laws to make renewable energy more affordable.  For example, PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing attaches the cost of solar energy installations to your property taxes. Essentially, your property taxes go up, but that increase is offset by your savings in energy, and if you sell your house, the remainder of the "loan" is paid off by the next owner.  

3. If you are a student, investigate renewable energy programs at your school. For example, the UH College of Engineering was recently awarded a $2.4M work force training grant by the Department of Energy to support renewable energy education.  Also at UH, the Sustainable UH student group provides a variety of educational opportunities related to renewable energy.  The more educated we are, the better we will be positioned to take advantage of opportunities as they occur.

Hawaii is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in renewable energy, with the potential for incredible benefits to us personally and to the wider world.  Let's work together to make it reality.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Soliciting student interns from the UH ICS Department

Several times per semester, local companies contact me to ask if I know of any good students who might be interested in working with them on a project. I am always delighted to receive these emails and want to facilitate these kinds of interactions.  In general, even if I happen to know of a student, I will always suggest that they send me a short email that I can resend to our internal student mailing lists.  With hundreds of students in our department, there may well be an ideal candidate who I have not had the opportunity to get to know personally.

Here are some hints that you can use to help maximize your chances of connecting with a good candidate:
  • Note that your email is unlikely to be the first solicitation our students have received this year. Indeed, your email may not be the first solicitation our students have received this month, or even this week.  It is helpful to point out what makes your opportunity special beyond being just a job.
  • Our students tend to be busy. Really busy.  Most already have part-time jobs in addition to a full academic load, and many are juggling a full-time job with a full-time load.  Naturally, pursuing new opportunities requires yet more time and energy, and switching from a currently stable employment situation to a new, unknown situation has real risks for our students.  Help them to see the rewards that might come from pursuing your opportunity.
  • In your email, the more details you can provide up front, the higher the chances that good students will respond.  In addition to the overall intellectual/professional opportunity, students are very interested in  logistics.  What is the pay? What are the hours, and what level of flexibility is available? Will the student need to work with you on-site, and where is that?  Are there citizenship issues? What technical background are you hoping for?  What technical skills will the student acquire?  Will the student work alone or as part of a team? Could this develop into summer job, or full-time work after graduation? 
  • While you might be tempted to create a Word document with this information and attach it, resist.  To minimize the "barrier to entry", describe your offering as plain text in two to three paragraphs directly in the body of the email. It is always appropriate to provide URLs to further information on your company website. 
Good luck, and don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.