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The man who discovered Tetris now wants to save the Earth

Henk Rogers brought Tetris to the world. Now he wants to get us to the moon and Mars, while making sure we still have a home on Earth.

The drive to Mars is bumpy and rough. Out the window of the four-wheel-drive I'm riding in, I see nothing but barren landscape and volcanic rock. As the wind picks up and howls through the windows, the surroundings seem even more otherworldly.

We crest a hill and approach the only sign of civilization for miles: a white dome that resembles the billowing clouds in the sky above. We're not really on Mars -- or not yet anyway. We're on the Big Island of Hawaii, high up on Mauna Loa, an active volcano 8,200 feet above sea level. The dome is HI-SEAS, or Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, a simulator that prepares would-be astronauts for life on the moon or Mars.

As we approach it, Henk Rogers' reason for going to Mars rings in my ears: "We need to have at least one other place where life as we know it exists."

Rogers, 65, is the charismatic Dutch technology entrepreneur and owner of HI-SEAS. But he's passionate about more than just space exploration. He's also working to develop sustainable energy solutions for Earth, starting in Hawaii. The timing couldn't be more appropriate -- 2019 is on track to be the second (or third) hottest year on record. With Hawaii's abundance of sunshine and natural resources, the island state is the ultimate testbed for showing how impactful and cost-effective renewable energy solutions can be. 

In 2007, Rogers started the nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation to end the use of carbon-based fuels in Hawaii and to advocate for clean energy solutions to the US and the rest of the world. He's also taken all his properties off the grid as part of his plan to show people how easy it can be to move away from fossil fuels. Or as he puts it, "I have to clean my own room before I can ask other people to clean theirs." 

His room, as I find out, is pretty neat.

Blue Hawaii

Hawaii's Big Island is full of contrasts. As my plane comes in to land at Kona International Airport, aquamarine ocean suddenly gives way to a sea of black lava rock. Once on solid ground, the rock suddenly transitions to rolling green hills lush with tropical vegetation. It's almost like someone painted a line between them.

Rogers' ranch is a 25-minute drive east of the airport and a 50-minute drive from HI-SEAS. Nestled on 28 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Pu'u Wa'awa'a (which roughly translates as "furrowed hill") emerges after a two-mile drive off the nearest main road. To reach the ranch, I first had to pass through the Pu'u Wa'awa'a forest reserve, filled with native ohia lehua flowers in full bloom, their bright red stamens guiding the way. Goats and cows roam free in the fields. It couldn't feel more different from the barren, Martian-like landscape of Mauna Loa.

Henk's ranch

Standing inside the ranch, you can see the sign that marks the entrance to Rogers' property. The forest is below.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Smiling broadly behind his beard, Rogers greets me with a warm embrace. I've never met him before, but he treats me like family, with the true spirit of aloha. He's wearing a white blazer and taupe suede shoes with mismatched laces. Both are decorated with his own designs, drawn with Sharpies; one says "Save our planet." His hair is pulled back in a ponytail. 

Though he looks relaxed and at home in Hawaii, Rogers has always been forward-looking. In an earlier career as a video game developer, he introduced Japan to one of its first role-playing titles with The Black Onyx in 1984. Then in the late '80s, he negotiated and acquired the rights to a then-unknown game called Tetris after he stumbled across it at an early CES in 1988. (The game was designed by Alexey Pajitnov, a Russian computer programmer, who co-founded The Tetris Company with Rogers in 1996. It's now the exclusive source of all Tetris licenses.)

It was a blockbuster, selling tens of millions of copies after he licensed it to Nintendo for the Gameboy.

But it wasn't his windfall from Tetris that directly led Rogers to his philanthropic efforts. In 2005, he had a heart attack, just as he was flush with more cash after selling his mobile phone gaming company, Blue Lava Wireless, in a deal worth $137 million. Looking up at the ceiling in the back of the ambulance, he decided it wasn't his time to go. In the weeks following, he found what he calls two of his missions in life: to end the use of carbon-based fuels and to make a backup of life on another planet.

Rogers was born in the Netherlands and came to the US when he was 11 years old. After falling in love with computers at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, he went on to major in computer science at the University of Hawaii. He jokes that his minor was in Dungeons & Dragons because he loved the role-playing game so much. "People used to tell me how much of a waste of time that was," he says. But it was video games that ultimately made him a fortune.

Henk Rogers's ranch

An aerial view of the energy lab on the ranch.

Evan Miller/CNET

The Dutch cowboy

We jump in a golf cart (electric, of course) so Rogers can give me a tour of his ranch. There's a workshop where he entertains and builds DIY projects (he goes to Burning Man almost every year). I meet some of the animal residents, including donkeys, horses, pigs -- and Obi Wan the poi dog, a mixed-breed mutt. The outhouse lets you enjoy a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean as you relieve yourself.

Looping up to the top of the property, we pull up to the main house, Pihanakalani (translation: gathering place of high supernatural beings). It's a modest, comfortable home about 2,700 feet above sea level, with a sprawling deck overlooking the ocean far below. Inside, the mantelpiece is adorned with photos of Rogers and his family, including one of him and his wife with the Obamas. He offers me some water that's sourced from the well on the property that supplies the ranch and 130 nearby homes. This water hasn't been to the surface in over 2,500 years and it tastes amazing.

Henk Rogers's house

Pihanakalani at sunset

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It's a tropical hot, humid day, with trade winds acting as a natural air conditioner. The ranch is completely off the grid, so even if the property needed real air conditioning, he'd be able to power it himself through solar energy.

"I thought it was going to be expensive and it was going to be hard," he says, describing his experience powering the entire ranch with the sun. "But it's not. Change starts with yourself."

You might say it's easy for a multimillionaire to move all his properties off the grid and promote the virtues of renewable energy, but what about everyone else? Is sustainability a luxury only rich people can afford?

Rogers doesn't think so. "When flat-screen TVs first came out, they were $10,000. Now you buy them for $600 at Costco," he says. "Everything we talk about [on the ranch] is going to go through that." 

For now, Hawaii has a way to go. The state generates the majority of its power from imported petroleum, 68% in 2018, and has the highest electricity prices in the US. But with ample sunlight, it's well suited to make the shift to renewable energy. And in any case, it's a shift the state now has to make. In 2015, Blue Planet Foundation successfully lobbied for state legislation that directs utilities in Hawaii to get 100% of their energy from renewable sources by 2045. The foundation is now working with eight other US states to help pass similar legislation.

"Henk Rogers has been a relentless advocate in our state's pursuit of a 100% renewable energy future," says Hawaii Governor David Ige. "His leadership in starting the Blue Planet Foundation has made a tremendous impact on the state's policies."

Rogers hopes (and expects) that Hawaii will achieve the goal way before the 2045 deadline. It's already well on the way. On Oahu, one in three homes has rooftop solar panels, large-scale solar farms are popping up across the islands and a geothermal power plant is gaining steam.

The year 2045 is also significant. "What better outcome than 100 years of the United Nations than to stop climate change?" he says.

Building a better battery

Jutting out from the landscape like a wedge is the Blue Planet Research energy lab, the first building you see on Pu'u Wa'awa'a. It's a testbed for renewable energy systems. The 360 solar panels on the roof capture enough energy to power the entire ranch, and inside there's a workshop with an electric-powered kayak and a portable barbecue that runs off hydrogen. Though they're just experiments for now, each could easily become a commercial product. 

Blue Planet Research lab

The Blue Planet Research energy lab

Lexy Savvides/CNET

"We literally try everything here and see how well it works," says Vincent Paul Ponthieux, director and CTO of Blue Planet Research. 

At one end of the energy lab, I spot a row of black cabinets with glowing blue LEDs around the doors. They look so elegant, at first you might mistake them for wine fridges. But these lithium iron ferrous phosphate batteries are an essential part of the ranch's sustainable energy grid. As the Big Island is notorious for fluctuating weather conditions -- mornings are typically sunny and afternoons can be overcast -- anyone completely relying on solar energy has to be able to store excess energy for later use. 

Though lithium iron ferrous phosphate batteries could easily be confused with the cobalt-based lithium-ion batteries that power your phone and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Ponthieux says lithium iron is more stable and nowhere near as volatile as lithium-ion cells. (The 787 was briefly grounded in 2013 after the batteries in some planes overheated, and Samsung recalled its Galaxy Note 7 in 2017 after the batteries in two phones caught fire.) Indeed, when I run my hand over the surface of the batteries in one of the units, I'm surprised when I don't feel any heat. 

Blue Ion batteries

The older generation of Blue Ion batteries (left) and Blue Ion 2.0 (right, smaller cabinets)

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The ferrous phosphate chemistry also doesn't discharge power as fast as the lithium-ion batteries used in a Tesla, for example. And that Rogers, says, is by design. "I don't need ludicrous mode for my house," he says, referring to the Tesla driving mode that accelerates the electric car from 0 to 60 mph in under 3 seconds. What's more, ferrous phosphate batteries can be recycled when they reach the end of life, or around 25 years. 

Blue Planet Energy (another company that bears Rogers' signature Blue Planet name) sells this exact same battery system for in-home energy storage. Called Blue Ion, it can be installed just like any other in-home system such as the Tesla Powerwall. Once installed, a standard Blue Ion system captures excess energy from solar panels delivering 16 kilowatt hours, enough to power a 2,000-square-foot home. The batteries charge to 90% capacity within an hour, and you can monitor battery status from your phone.

These batteries aren't just for powering standard homes. Following electricity failures after Hurricane Maria in 2017, Blue Planet Research deployed a system in Puerto Rico to help power various projects, including a cancer support center. The foundation is also retrofitting 125 schools there with batteries to keep them powered during future outages -- they double as community shelters during a disaster.

Rogers says because Hawaii is also prone to hurricanes, it's an ideal place to use battery tech. "[Hawaii is] going to get hit," he says. "There's nothing different about the infrastructure we have here from Puerto Rico -- lots of wires on wooden poles that go down when the wind blows."

During a natural disaster it's also helpful to have a backup to the backup -- in this case, that would be hydrogen. Excess solar energy from the panels automatically gets turned into hydrogen at the lab, which can then be used to charge electric vehicles or cook food (on that barbecue, for example).

A renewable hydrogen station

Hello, hydrogen power

Lexy Savvides/CNET

"We don't like wasting anything," says Ponthieux. "We use hydrogen fuel cells with the hydrogen we made from energy we would have thrown away, so we get a fossil fuel-free backup system." 

Having a variety of energy systems is important to ensure you can meet demand at all times of the day, regardless of weather. But it's also critical to test and prepare these systems here on Earth, so we can power our lives when we are well and truly off the grid -- in space.

Backing up life

If there's a word to describe Henk Rogers, it's driven. 

After finding Tetris, he believed in the game so much -- "I realized I was hooked," he says -- he sought the rights to the game from its Russian creator. It was a seemingly impossible task for an outsider to enter the Soviet Union and conduct business in the late 1980s, but he succeeded.

Fast forward to today and Rogers has pledged to become 100% sustainable himself by 2020, although he admits he's still working on ways to offset carbon from all his air travel.

He's also focusing on taking sustainability into space. Besides attending conferences on space exploration, Rogers founded the International Moonbase Alliance, a collection of astronauts (like Buzz Aldrin), scientists and engineers working to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon.

Though SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has so far found no clear evidence that life exists or existed beyond our planet, that's not Rogers' primary concern. For him, getting to another planet isn't just about preserving life once we're in space, it's also saving what we have on Earth.

"I'm a computer scientist," he says. "You make backups."

In 2012, Kim Binsted, a professor at the University of Hawaii, approached Rogers to fund a project on the Big Island for space exploration. That project turned out to be HI-SEAS, and it was built in 2013 on the site of an abandoned quarry. 

See inside a moon simulator here on Earth

See all photos

According to Ponthieux (who, in addition to working with Rogers at Blue Planet Research, also designed HI-SEAS), the team camped out for three weeks on the top of Mauna Loa to put it together. They were still putting on the finishing touches when a crew approached to start the first mission. It was a NASA-backed mission to test solutions to menu fatigue, or what happens when astronauts get bored eating the same meals. The crew consumed only shelf-stable (or instant) foods and had to fill out daily surveys on their mood and health, wearing arm monitors to track movement and energy use. 

Since then, the habitat has hosted months-long missions with space agencies and researchers looking to simulate life on Mars, studying everything from the psychological aspects of living on another planet to testing technologies like VR to communicate with loved ones back home. In late 2018, the dome transitioned to hosting shorter missions focused on the moon.

So why choose the Big Island as a moon stand-in? Rocks on the moon and Mars share 96% of the same chemistry with those on Hawaii. If you are going to practice with new technology anywhere on Earth, this is the place.

"It is important to have analog habitats [a research station to simulate life on Mars] because it would be too expensive and too risky to try things for the first time on the moon or on Mars," says Rodrigo Romo, program director at PISCES, a state agency that promotes aerospace and economic development in Hawaii. 

Making moonshots

Part of Rogers' mission is, by the end of the next decade, to build a moon village that would not only help us better study the moon, but also act as a base to help get us to Mars. He envisions that robots will be able to do much of the construction work on the village, called Mahina Lani, with humans arriving later to finalize things. It could be prototyped on Hawaii.

HI-SEAS is also looking to expand by adding in more systems designed to help reuse finite resources, similar to what would be used in space. That includes being able to recycle water and making sure excess solar energy isn't wasted by converting it to hydrogen.

Mission control

Mission control for HI-SEAS is also located in the Blue Planet Research energy lab.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

"We need people with the mindset, the passion and the funds to make things happen," says Romo of Rogers' contribution. "It's going to be the factor that makes a difference in space exploration from here on."

I ask Rogers what he thinks might be the shared characteristics between him and fellow tech entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who are also striving for accomplishments in space.

"I think the trait is thinking big," he says. "I mean, really big, like, 'What's the future of mankind?' big."

For Rogers, life in space and life on Earth are inexorably linked. Although he's leading by example, he knows there needs to be a larger concerted effort to stop climate change from getting any worse.

"Let's stop bellyaching about who's causing it or if it's really happening," he says. "Let's solve this thing."

As I crunch over the jagged lava rock surrounding HI-SEAS and take in the barren landscape, I can't help but long for the lush, green Hawaii only a few miles away. Breathing is hard, and every step is a struggle in the makeshift spacesuit I'm wearing. Even though I'm only simulating what it's like living on the moon or Mars, it really does drive home how fragile and precious our planet really is -- and what we could lose from climate change.