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Tina Casey headshot

How Oracle CEO's New Hawaiian Paradise Could Self-Sustain

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison plans sustainable future for LanaiOracle CEO and co-founder Larry Ellison recently bought his own piece of paradise in the form of 98 percent of the island Lanai in Hawaii, and now the buzz is starting over his plans for the 141-square-mile property with ocean views on all sides. As described in one article from Reuters, Ellison intends to turn the island into a "model for environmentally sustainable enterprise." That's all good as far as the environment goes, but environmental sustainability does not necessarily translate into economic viability, and the article cites some concerns among some that Ellison's vision would require an indefinite subsidy to sustain it over the long run. However, if you take a look at some of the strategies already being implemented in Hawaii and elsewhere, Ellison's "laboratory for sustainability" has a good chance of succeeding on the financials as well.

Oracle and sustainability

As a hint about the direction that Ellison could take in Lanai, consider that his company offers a full suite of IT products for sustainability management, and that Oracle helped to kickstart President Obama's new user-friendly Green Button energy efficiency initiative. Oracle also made Corporate Responsibility Magazine's list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens this year. What this adds up to is a company that is tuned into the kinds of strategic interaction, stakeholder partnerships and advanced technology that are part and parcel of the new green economy. Assuming that some of that mindset has rubbed off on Oracle's own CEO, things could get pretty interesting on Lanai.

Water supply and energy efficiency

A major obstacle to new enterprise on Lanai and Hawaii as a whole is the high price of fossil fuel. Hawaii has been aggressively tackling the issue on a statewide basis by positioning itself as the nation's leading test bed for a new economy based on alternative energy, and that, at least, gives Ellison a running start. That includes potential partnerships between Lanai and the U.S. Department of Defense, which has been leveraging its important Hawaii naval facilities to test and demonstrate new alternative energy strategies. For example, one of the key points to pop out of the Reuters article is the need for a desalination facility to provide irrigation for the organic farms Ellison has in mind. The obvious problem here is the tremendous amount of electricity involved in conventional desalination. There is a twofold solution at hand. One part comes in the form of new desalination technologies, and the Office of Naval Research is funding a project that is particularly promising. It uses an energy efficient microbe-based process to desalinate water  and treat wastewater while producing electricity and hydrogen gas, which can be used for fuel.

Alternative energy for Lanai

The second part of the equation can be found in an impressive catalog of Hawaii's renewable energy resources, including solar, wind, ocean (in the form of waves or tides), geothermal and biomass. At the time the catalog was issued, back in 2006, the verdict was that individual solar hot water heaters and wind turbines were a sufficient solution for the small-population islands, Lanai and Molokai. But fast-forward six years and now there is a 67-turbine wind farm for Lanai in the works. The wind farm's developers envision providing 100 percent of the island's electricity and producing excess energy for export to other islands through an underwater cable. If that particular project doesn't quite pan out, a network of underwater electrical cables and the development of regional smart grid technologies would enable Lanai to import a reliable supply of low cost alternative energy from elsewhere in Hawaii.

A new life for old pineapple farms

Another yet-to-be developed resource on Lanai is the island's now-defunct pineapple industry, which left behind a considerable amount of acreage. That provides some interesting partnership opportunities for biofuel and "green chemistry" crops like the pongam tree.

This type of crop packs a lot of punch into a small space. The company TerViva, for example, is developing a strain specifically aimed at restoring depleted soil, particularly on former pineapple farms. Farmers can extract extra value from a pongam grove by grazing livestock between the trees (cattle will eat the nitrogen-enriched grass without disturbing the crop). Honeybees are big fans of pongam blossoms, so beekeeping is another potential use.

Avoiding trouble in a sustainable paradise

All in all, it seems that the means for achieving financial sustainability for Lanai are already well in hand, at least in terms of available green technologies and strategies. What could turn out to be far more challenging is the age-old human factor, and that depends on Ellison's ability to enlist Lanai's residents and other stakeholders as willing partners in his vision. Image: Lanai. Some rights reserved by rickh710. Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.  
Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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