Monday, April 28, 2014


Another high-tech #fail illustrates the need for better advice

by Larry Geller

I’ve advocated for a “chief technology officer (CTO)” for the state several times, because I believe we are technologically deprived here in middle of the Pacific Ocean. Whether it’s knowing how to design efficient street and sports field lighting, fill potholes or how to keep white lines on crosswalks, or (in this case) evaluating the validity of local tech upstarts, it would be great to have an expert opinion available. Particularly when we can’t do something that others do readily, we could benefit from some good advice.

In Sopogy's Demise is a Huge Victory for Honest Engineering and the Taxpayer (Hawaii Reporter, 4/28/2014), Panos Prevedouros reviews the spectacular rise and then fall of Sopogy, one of the media’s high-tech darlings. Snip:

Sopogy was told by numerous engineers that their Kona projections were absurd and violated the second law of thermodynamics.  Sopogy proceeded anyway with their original plan.

The most factual evidence suggests that throughout its existence, Sopogy generated 0.1 MW!  This is roughly equal to 50 modest solar installations on residential rooftops.  It took $20 million (yes million) of Hawaii technology tax credits to accomplish so little.

Now, I have some experience in criticizing technology projects incorrectly. In my younger years, just before 56K dialup modems came to market, I proved conclusively by Shannon’s Law that such data speeds were not possible. I was wrong… big time. So I can’t say that an analysis based on the second law of thermodynamics is any more credible than the claims of the developers that it works.

But that’s my point—there should be some way to get unbiased technology reviews when taxpayer money is involved.

Sopogy’s failure followed the demise of Hoku Scientific, another media high-tech alternative energy darling.

You’d think that in a place with all this sunshine, solar energy ventures might just succeed… and of course, you’d be wrong. What’s booming is the installation of rooftop solar systems, basically a contractor’s business.

That’s not to say that Hawaii can’t do high-tech. It would be strange if there were none, but there are plenty of barriers to any island isolated from markets, vendors, and technology resources of all kinds from getting really good at it.

Venture capitalists know that one day the bean counters will come knocking on the startup CEO’s door and suggest that the time for surfing is past, best to pack up and move to Silicon Valley and make some money. Investors don’t care if a venture succeeds in Hawaii, just that it succeeds. So with a couple of exceptions, the exodus of tech parallels the exodus of top engineering graduates, for example—the prospects for success lie elsewhere.

Now, having said that, the reason a CTO would be a benefit is that there would be second opinion available as well as a valuable resource. What will work in Hawaii? What technologies should we embrace?

Should the state invest tax credits in a proposal or not? What are the risks?

Should we change the mix of asphalt we are using to pave streets and highways?

Are there better ways to handle storm water than to build sewer systems at public expense?

Why do city parks waste electricity by installing old-fashioned lighting fixtures that light up the sky instead of the sports field?

Do we really have to install light poles in middle of the sidewalks along Ala Moana Boulevard?

What should legislators expect as a fair price for electric generation in the state, and what must we do to achieve it?


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