Sunday, February 8, 2009

An "Unfair Advantage" for Hawaii R&D Companies in Renewable Energy Technology

Hawaii tech companies are typically underfunded by a factor of 1/5 to 1/10 what their Mainland counterparts can command for the same venture proposal. At the same time, Hawaii tech companies need to offer compensation competitive with the Mainland to attract senior company officers for assurance to venture capital investors. Often key technical employees also need to be hired from out-of-State. Hawaii’s geographical remoteness from enabling business infrastructure, alliance partners, and distribution channels, along with high transportation costs, all combine to limit product sales to Hawaii’s small domestic economy (1/300 of Mainland GDP), as low levels of venture funding would make a national or global sales effort unattainable.

However, the renewable energy (RE) technology sector in Hawaii may finally reverse this decades-long “perfect storm” of disadvantages, perhaps even giving our RE tech companies an “unfair” advantage over their counterparts in other states. Based on mostly fossil-fueled power generation, our electricity rates are the highest in the nation, hitting 31 cents/kwh in October 2008 and still holding at around 19 cents/kwh, compared to a Mainland average of about 11 cents/kwh or less. This means that there is a strong economic incentive for our local businesses to install RE power generating facilities at their business locations to save on utility costs. Even at $8,000 to $10,000 per installed KW of generating capacity, they can save on utility costs more than enough to pay back on long-term (15 to 25 year) debt financing for the facility, taking into account the 65% return in RE tax credits (35% Hawaii, 30% Federal) that the project owner gets on the installed costs of the facility. When the PUC issues its rulemaking in mid- to late-2009 on feed-in tariff rates for selling excess RE-generated power back to the utility, many if not all commercial and industrial users in the State should seriously consider installing some level of solar PV or other RE power generation facilities at their business sites.

At the same time, the new forefront in RE innovations in Hawaii is not in “big-science” discoveries of exotic new materials or processes to achieve higher RE conversion ratios (which typically take decades to perfect and bring to market), but rather in near-term, practical energy efficiency improvements, “smart” energy usage management, on-site storage optimization, new user interfaces to a “smart” utility grid, etc. A tech company can partner with an RE facility owner to use the already-financed RE power generating facility as a test bed for conducting R&D on a new energy efficiency or “smart” energy management technology. Such targeted R&D on non-fossil-fuel energy technology and/or advanced software-based energy management controls should readily qualify for the State’s 100% investment tax credit and 20% refundable R&D business tax credit, even if the Hawaii investor tax credit law (Act 221/215) is amended to remove certain abuses during the current legislative session.

The anatomy of a new hybrid business model for an R&D leveraged company in renewable energy technology in Hawaii might look like this. The R&D company can partner with the owner of an RE power generating facility as a test bed. As an example, current electricity costs can justify a $3 million debt financing to pay for a 300 KW capacity, solar PV system (such as the recent installation for Tony Group Autoplex reported in the Honolulu Advertiser) as a self-amortizing business loan to be repaid over 25 years from the expected savings on utility costs, with close to $2 million in renewable energy tax credits off State and Federal tax liabilities. As a partner in the R&D work, the project owner may be given a percentage of company stock, the continued use of any successful energy efficiency or energy management system tested at their site, and/or a percentage of profits on any technology successfully proven and later commercialized by the R&D company.

The R&D company now only has to raise perhaps $500K in venture capital to test their new energy efficiency or energy management technology at the test bed site, instead of having to raise an additional $3 million to build the test bed site. Since the venture investment is specifically for R&D activity which qualifies under the Hawaii tax credit law, the investors in the R&D company will get back their $500K in State investment tax credits, and the R&D company will also get a business tax refund of up to $100K from the State for the amounts it expends on qualifying R&D costs. By having to raise only 1/7 the venture capital financing than if they had to build the test bed site, the R&D company can now focus all of the raised funds on its R&D activity, and avoid the high costs and time distractions of raising a 7x larger venture financing, hiring senior company officers, and diverting scarce venture funds into product manufacturing, distribution, marketing, sales, and customer service.

If the R&D company is successful in developing a new energy efficiency or energy management system, it can transfer the system at cost to the facility owner to continue receiving the energy savings benefits off utility costs. The R&D company will own any patent rights, copyrights in software, and other intellectual property (IP) rights in the system which they can then exploit commercially throughout the Mainland U.S. and globally, either through licensing or by then seeking venture capital financing for expansion of their company to commercialize their now-proven technology.

1 comment:

  1. More than 15 years ago, returning from a trip to Tahiti, where the French had established a total system PV center, with DC applicances, etc., and observing the devastation that Iniki had caused on Kauai, I made a half-hearted attempt to discuss forming a PV company to supply a PV package (including appliances) for new homes. These were the pre Act 221/215 days when electricity prices were not yet that high and grid connection was a challenge. The dissuading factor was that, at a projected cost of 25 cents/kWh, PV was still too expensive. Of course, oil prices sunk to a historic low--even below 1972 in current dollars--in 1998, so the company would probably have gone bankrupt.

    The price of PV power, interestingly enough, has not changed that much today, but with those other advantages you cited, this should be a real opportunity for entrepreneurs. It would particularly help if the State Legislature can authorize paying residential producers feeding to the grid twice the cost of what they have to pay (Germany still edicts more than 50 cents/kWh, and they are now #1 in the world in PV).

    Home wind energy of course should almost never be attempted because wind profiles are poor where people live. On the other hand, utility scale wind farms at acceptable sites are today the only renewable electricity option reasonably competitive with fossil/nuclear power.

    Otherwise, as oil costs will zoom up in five years, the life cycle cost of solar for home applications in Hawaii should be worth the investment today. Looks like an opportunity for Hoku. I'll send Dustin to your blog.


    Pat Takahashi