Saturday, May 29, 2010

C. Dudley Pratt, Jr., Hawaiian Electric Leader (1981-90), Renewable Energy Innovator, Leaves a Full Legacy

The news that former Hawaiian Electric President C. Dudley Pratt, Jr. passed away Wednesday at his Kailua home brings back a flood of memories gathered over nearly a decade in the 1980s while working for him. Hawaii’s renewable energy industry is in debt to the man. Here are some of those memories.

The Holding Company

Mr. Pratt wrote his MBA thesis at the University of Hawaii on utility company diversification and wasted not a moment pursuing that vision at HECO once he was named president in January 1981. He followed Carl Williams, whose legacy was colored by an op-ed piece Williams wrote in the 1970s pooh-poohing green energy’s potential in the islands. The piece gave the impression that HECO was reluctant to get aboard the fledgling renewable energy movement in the same decade that saw the OPEC oil embargo, which led to Hawaii’s restrictive gas-purchasing rules (odd or even license plate numbers), gas lines and high utility bills.

Dudley Pratt’s arrival in the corner office marked an abrupt departure from HECO’s super-conservative past. Utility diversification had started on the mainland, and he foresaw the potential for oil price hikes and an era when HECO’s electric sales couldn’t keep up with the demand to continuously add value to shareholders.

Mr. Pratt’s public announcement of his intention to create the Hawaiian Electric Industries holding company came about one month after I joined the company as a direct report to him after serving as an aide to Congressman Cec Heftel. He wanted the company’s communications effort to keep pace with his ambitious plans and therefore had our office under his direct supervision, a circumstance that later was shown to have its drawbacks (discussed below).

A key moment in HEI’s creation (details of which I believe are publicized here for the first time) involved overcoming the reluctance of Transamerica Corporation to approve the diversification plan. The company owned enough preferred shares to block creation of the HEI holding company and signaled its intention to do so.

While Mr. Pratt and his team assessed the looming impasse, we learned from Harvey Meyerson, also a former Heftel aide who had moved on to work for U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, that Mr. Matsunaga had been invited to speak to Transamerica executives in San Francisco. Mr. Pratt authorized Harvey to tell the Senator about the Transamerica problem. Whatever Mr. Matsunaga said or did in San Francisco did the trick, and Transamerica fell in line, removing the last barrier to HEI’s creation.

Mr. Renewable Energy

One of the subsidiaries Mr. Pratt created early in his tenure as HEI’s chief executive was Hawaiian Electric Renewable Systems (HERS) to facilitate construction of a wind farm in the hills above Kahuku and the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore. A Department of Energy demonstration wind turbine had proven the viability of the wind regime there; one of the turbine’s blades still stands next to HECO’s Ward Avenue facility where Mr. Pratt had it installed. He launched HERS on a path to capture energy in the northeast trade winds by presiding over a rain-soaked and muddy groundbreaking and blessing of the land in February 1985.

A little more than a year later on a bright, blue-sky day, 15 600-KW Westinghouse turbines went into service, becoming Oahu’s first serious effort in wind energy technology. (The memento at left fixes the date as March 27, 1986.) Although the early-generation turbines were no match for the region’s corrosive sea-spray environment, the enterprise helped capture the public’s attention to the importance of what became a mantra around the company – “Get Off Oil!” (A new generation of turbines will soon be put to the test in the Kahuku hills.)

As those early Westinghouse turbines began to degrade, more than one suffered a catastrophic blade loss as centrifugal force threw blades into the ground while injuring no one or damaging the towers. Our black-humor joke in Corporate Communications was that the blades’ throw radius encompassed Lihue on the island of Kauai. These incidents never were reported in the media, even though we distributed short press releases each time they occurred. If we hadn’t been transparent and word leaked out, it’s likely the accidents would have been splashed across page one. Mr. Pratt’s insistence on openness and transparency once again proved to be the right approach, as was the case after Hurricane Iwa struck the islands in 1982, as discussed below.

Continuing to think big, Mr. Pratt had HERS acquire the world’s largest wind turbine, the Boeing MOD-5B, and had it installed in the Kahuku region. Tip to tip, the blades measured longer than a football field – 320 feet. Attendees at its dedication in 1987 included Senator Matsunaga, and an aerial photo of the experimental machine standing tall against the lush green backdrop of the Kahuku hills made it into USA Today.

Mr. Pratt’s vision for Hawaii energy independence extended beyond Oahu to the islands of Maui and Hawaii, where HECO subsidiaries Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light Company sold electricity at an even higher kilowatthour cost than on Oahu. MECO hosted a 340-KW demonstration Windane turbine near its Maalaea power plant for most of the 1980s. Maui has become one of the wind energy success stories in the islands.

Across Alenuihaha Channel on the Big Island, a small geothermal plant had been established in the Puna district. Mr. Pratt envisioned a grid linking Hawaii Island’s considerable geothermal resources – believed to be as much as 500 megawatts – with the other islands, including Oahu and its much higher power demand.

A deep-water direct-current cable would be the link, and Dillingham Construction Company, which was formed in Hawaii when the islands were still a kingdom, tested the feasibility of such a cable by accurately laying a small test line across the 6100-foot deep channel between the islands. The concept was abandoned in the 1990s due to widespread community opposition to large-scale geothermal development in the native forest. However, Mr. Pratt’s dream of creating a multi-island electric grid lives on.

Hurricanes and Other Moments

The 1980s were HECO’s “Challenge Years” due to a series of island-wide or near-island-wide power outages that hit Oahu much too often. Mr. Pratt oversaw a large-scale reliability improvement effort that circumstances beyond HECO’s control made necessary. Hurricane Iwa struck the islands on November 23, 1982, and although its greatest impact was felt on Kauai, Oahu’s winds exceeded 100 mph that night. (Photo shows distribution lines on the Waianae Coast the next day.)

The Corporate Communications staff rode out the storm in HECO’s Richards Street headquarters, about three blocks from the Honolulu Harbor power plant. So confident were we that we wouldn’t lose our lights that we had failed to bring flashlights or candles into the office. Someone found a pack of matches, which we used to cut the gloom as we called Load Dispatch at Ward Avenue over still-working telephone lines.

We reached Mr. Pratt in generator-lit Load Dispatch, where he was assessing damage to the system. About 95 percent of HECO’s customers were without power; only neighborhoods adjacent to the Waiau plant at Pearl Harbor were still being served. Our conversation lasted about 30 seconds. “The storm kicked the s--- out of the transmission system,” he said. “We’ve lost eight of our 138,000-KV lines.” He told corporate communications to “tell the public like it is,” the kind of guidance communicators want to hear.

We began our fruitless attempts to call the only radio station still on the air, KGU-AM, thanks to its emergency generator that came with its designation as an emergency broadcaster. The only number we had for the station was in the phone book, and that’s what listeners were using to call in with their personal storm stories. Failing to get through, we drove to KGU's studios on the top floor of the newspaper building and talked our way onto the air.

The wisdom in Mr. Pratt’s direction to “tell it like it is” was confirmed in the weeks and months to come. The public said repeatedly that HECO’s reports on damage to the electric grid and the repair efforts already underway by line crews working under harrowing circumstances were the first they heard as they sat in complete darkness. The only other broadcast on the dial was from a station with a religious format and a tower on Molokai that escaped damage. (The station's content at the height of the storm was a Bible-thumping sermon that many residents later said had freaked them out.)

Mr. Pratt directed a complete top-to-bottom emergency procedures review after the hurricane that made the company better prepared for future major outages. Corporate Communications’ new emergency SOP included a list of non-published phone numbers into every radio station’s control room, and departments throughout the company rewrote their SOPs based on lessons learned from Hurricane Iwa. Work began on a new 138-KV transmission line on flat land away from the mountains to improve system reliability. Other major outages – “Black Wednesday” in July 1983 and another island-wide blackout in August 1984 – spurred ongoing system reliability improvements on Mr. Pratt’s watch.

The Personal Side

We’re convinced that nearly everyone who knew Dudley Pratt would describe him as a gentleman – a bow tie-wearing one at that. (It was with reluctance that he abandoned his bow tie and adopted more conventional neckwear for his annual report photographs.) He was soft-spoken in public and virtually all his company meetings and presentations, but in his office he would often cut loose – growling and grousing about what was pushing his buttons at the time. His leadership was so respected within the company that when he would pass on one of Corporate Communications’ bright ideas at his senior staff meetings, he deliberately would refrain from speaking up for it, lest it appear to be a command decision. Consequently, the communications office had no champion for its proposals at senior staff. That problem was corrected after about 18 months, when Corporate Communications was slipped into the org chart of a staff vice president and later became an officer-level department in its own right.

Oil or no oil? Contrary to predictions heard everywhere at the time, Mr. Pratt was adamant that the world would never run out of oil. He believed improved technology would find resources that were still unknown or unreachable in the 1980s, and the past three decades have proven him right. BP’s oil disaster undoubtedly strengthened his resolve that getting off oil is the right path not only for Hawaii but the nation and world.

Getting away from it all Mr. Pratt’s version of the perfect vacation was to pilot Waipouli, the sampan he built in his back yard in Kailua, out to one of the small island outcrops in the Hawaiian archipelago northwest of Kauai. He’d stay out there fishing for a week or two with his pals, as at-home on the open oceran as he was in corporate boardrooms all over town (newspaper reports say he was a board director for 32 organizations).

Designing the future Thanks to the diversification effort that included the acquisition of Hawaiian Tug & Barge, American Savings Bank and other companies, the need for a new corporate logo to visually tie all the companies together became apparent. Clarence Lee, the award-winning and nationally known designer, had been working with HECO for years (and still is). Clarence was tasked with coming up with a new look that could be applied to all the HEI companies.

When the day finally arrived for Clarence to present his proposals, the two us went to Mr. Pratt’s office and took chairs in front of his desk, which, as usual, was clear of papers and clutter. Only two colored pencils were set off to the side, which struck me as curious. One pencil was yellow, the other green. Clarence began his detailed presentation, which continued for quite some time, and then sat back for a reaction. After a few moments, Mr. Pratt reached for the top desk drawer and quietly said, “I kinda like this” as he pulled out a piece of paper on which he had precisely drawn large H-E-I green letters in block form, surrounded by a green rectangle against a yellow background. The letters looked like the big block Y often associated with Mr. Pratt’s alma mater, Yale University.

What Mr. Pratt lay upon the desk a generation ago is what is now in all HEI documents – and so is his idea for a logo to tie all the electric utilities together, a circle behind a graphic representation of all the state’s islands that's painted on thousands of utility trucks, signs, transformers and pieces of equipment. (Clarence Lee has written to note that green soon was replaced by Punahou blue.)

That was Dudley Pratt – a hands-on leader who implemented excellent ideas and a vision to benefit not only the companies he headed but all the people of Hawaii. He was in fact a keiki o ka aina – a child of the land, descendent of 19th century missionaries, who saw an honorable mission in electrifying the islands he loved and carving new paths to energy independence.

Services for C. Dudley Pratt, Jr. will be held at 5 pm on June 7th at Honolulu’s Central Union Church – a fitting location for Mr. Pratt's memorial, having been founded 167 years ago as Seamen’s Bethel in the Port of Honolulu.

1 comment:

Maggie K said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write down your memories of Mr. Pratt. He was an amazing person and those of us who knew him can count ourselves truly lucky. God bless and godspeed.