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Vol. 7, No. 4
August/September 2004


Lighting the Way 

by Jeff Mikulina
illustration by Alex Preiss

Sun, surf, a gentle breeze. Most people picture a beautiful day at the beach when they hear those words. But not Kyle Datta. He sees power.

"Solar, wave, wind energy—Hawaii has all the right resources," says Datta, a stocky man with silvering hair and a wide mustache that highlights a relentless smile. "We could be the global epicenter of clean energy research."

Datta is one of a handful of clean energy emissaries that are pioneering how Hawaii will power its future. Their goal? To put Hawaii on the map as the clean power capital of the world and become a model for transitioning the world to clean, sustainable energy sources. Sound far-fetched? Then you haven’t met Datta. His confidence is contagious, and he knows energy. Though based in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, he’s the managing director of the esteemed Colorado environmental thinktank, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and his recent book on electrical resources, Small Is Profitable, won the Economist’s 2002 Book of the Year award. The gregarious Datta has degrees from Yale and a fifteen-year history in the energy business, and when he speaks of the "hydrogen economy" and a "distributed energy revolution," it’s not clear if he’s talking about electricity or a new-age religion—or both. But one thing’s for sure: He’s a believer.

"The winds of change are blowing," says Datta. "Given a choice, people would prefer to buy their electrons green." He points out that Hawaii now gets 95 percent of its energy from imported fossil fuel. The demigod Maui may have captured the rising sun for energy, but today the Islands depend on crude—which, Datta notes, is expensive and not sustainable.

"People want hot showers, cold beer and comfortable temperatures," he says. "We think they deserve to have those things reliably and at the least cost—which renewable energy provides."

So where, exactly, are Datta’s green electrons going to come from?