20 for the Next 20: Yoh Kawanami, Hawaiian Electric Co.

Kawanami hopes to help Hawai‘i become a model for how to produce renewable energy, in part using customer-sited resources like rooftop solar panels.
Yoh Kawanami at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park.
Yoh Kawanami at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park. | Photo: Aaron Yoshino

Yoh Kawanami

Director of Customer Energy Resources- Operations, Hawaiian Electric Co.


Yoh Kawanami’s journey to Hawaiʻi was unexpected: He was born on Guam and thought his family would eventually move back to Japan. Instead, his father’s career in hotels brought them to Hawai‘i when Kawanami was 10.

Aspiring to work with aircraft, Kawanami went to college in Seattle, where he earned a degree in aeronautics and astronautics. But he also realized how special Hawai‘i was. A degree in engineering management from Duke University allowed him to come back to the Islands.

After nearly 10 years working in project management and development for the Department of Defense, he had learned how to turn innovative ideas into reality. That was exactly the skill Hawaiian Electric was seeking for its “demand response” – which is how a utility manages a power grid so the supply of electricity matches the ever-shifting demand.

“It wasn’t about energy, but it was bringing new tech into Hawaiian Electric,” Kawanami says. “It was a match made in heaven.”

Now as director of customer energy resources-operations, he oversees efforts to incentivize customers to invest in solar energy.

“The evolving technologies, programs and control systems that Yoh is bringing to our electric system help keep our energy systems working smoothly as we add more customer-sited and grid-scale renewable energy, and energy storage,” Shelee Kimura, CEO of Hawaiian Electric, writes in a letter to Hawaii Business Magazine.

Kawanami says he’s learned a lot about how the utility operates because although demand response is a small part of the company, it has different touch points throughout Hawaiian Electric. That means other departments have to understand what the demand response team is doing and vice versa.

“That gave me an opportunity to talk with a lot of people to understand how we can succeed together.”

His Japanese fluency made him a valuable liaison between Japan and Hawai‘i, especially after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster when Japanese officials wanted to learn more about Hawai‘i’s clean energy efforts. Kawanami says that by translating for senior executives, he learned even more about Hawaiian Electric.

One of Kawanami’s goals is to help Hawai‘i become a model for how to produce renewable energy, in part using customer-sited resources like rooftop solar panels.

“The moment we can self-sustain ourselves with 100% renewables, that design will be very unique, and I think our work in customer energy resources will have a role.” He calls that unique energy model the “state of Hawai‘i way.”



Categories: 20 for the Next 20, Lists & Awards