Billionaire Plans to Turn Hawaiian Island Into a Solar-Powered "Eco Lab"

Four months ago, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison bought some 98% of the 141 square-mile Hawaiian island of Lanai for $500 million. Now, he says he's going to turn it into a sustainable paradise filled with electric cars, organic farms, and solar power.

The island's 3,000 residents haven't heard a peep out of Ellison since he bought Lanai, so they've naturally been pretty curious as to what he plans on doing with the place. Last week, through an interview with CNBC, he gave them their answer.

"What we are going to do is turn Lanai into a model for sustainable enterprise," he told Maria Bartiromo. "I own the water utility, I own the electric utility. The electric utility is all going to be solar photovoltaic and solar thermal where it can convert sea water into fresh water."

So, he aims on running the island on solar power, even using solar thermal to run a desalination that will provide it with fresh water. Pretty ambitious! But wait, there's more. There will be organic farming, too:

"We have drip irrigation where we are going to have organic farms all over the island. Hopefully we are going to export produce — really the best, organic produce to Japan and elsewhere," he said. "We are going to support the local people and help them start these businesses. We will have electric cars. So it's going to be a little, if you will, laboratory for sustainability in businesses of small scale."

An 'eco lab' with electric cars, solar power, and organic farming — right-wing pundits will no doubt have a good snort at this one ("It's like Captain Planet's secret lair," Bill O'Reilly is scoffing somewhere). But it's pretty commendable in nearly every regard, save one major shortcoming: Ellison has yet to sit down at a single community meeting. 3,000 people live on that island, and they had to find out what the billionaire owner planned do with it from a primetime TV interview.

Which seems sort of feudal, here: in comes the job creator, bringing work for all the hapless island dwellers now at his mercy. Come, work on his farm, and he will show you how to build an eco-business! Seems Ellison suffers a bit from TEDliness here; the belief that a couple good ideas, a mountain of cash, and a Thought Leader can whisk away the woes of the world.

Don't get me wrong. It's nice that Ellison wants to spend a couple of his $41 billion greening up an island, but c'mon, talk to your community. Call Solar Mosaic; they'll have some pointers. See how many of Lanai's residents are game to work on an organic farm, drive an electric car. That's the sort of ethos we need more of; open discussion about why solar and EVs work, participatory efforts to install them. Ellison may earn himself some headlines with his altruistic multi-million dollar eco lab, but any truly sustainable (and scalable) approach to decarbonization will be democratic.

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