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Strategic Planning Manager Nami Ohtomo hopes to see more renewable energy across maritime industry

By Hilary Reeves

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories recently began a six-month test of its prototype maritime hydrogen fuel cell generator at the Young Brothers facility in Honolulu Harbor, one of the energy-related special projects Strategic Planning Manager Nami Ohtomo has shepherded along during her years in Hawaii.

“I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to contribute. I get asked to work on special projects that crop up from time to time, and I especially enjoy working on renewable energy.”

She embraces the fluidity.

Born in Japan, Ohtomo spent most of her childhood in Southern California before studying East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. After graduation, she spent some time in Washington D.C. working for various nonprofits and as an administrative assistant for a Japanese newspaper bureau. Eventually, after deciding that the District wasn’t where she wanted to be in the long-term, Ohtomo became a Tokyo reporter for the Associated Press’ economic news wire service. She specialized in covering the Asia-Pacific oil market in a small office of mostly ex-patriots. Wanting to turn her full attention to environmental and international studies, Ohtomo soon applied to graduate schools and went on to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“I’d actually always had an interest in environmental issues,” she said. “Covering the oil market, I tended to think a lot about the environment.”

Nami shows a group of employees how to operate the hydrogen generator
Nami pictured at a ribbon cutting ceremony on August 28, 2015. Young Brothers is hosting a project led by Sandia National Laboratories to test a hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered generator as an alternative to diesel in powering refrigerated containers.
One side of the hydrogen generator advertises clean power and the companies that came together to create it.
(Photos by David Murphey)

Hydrogen fuel generator tucked in a modified blue container with open doors shows the inner workings. Ohtomo earned a Master of Science from the School of Natural Resources and Environment and a Master in Public Policy. She ultimately made the decision to move back to Hawaii, where she had spent several months before starting her graduate studies.

“I ended up spring-boarding off my environmental background to become the natural resources specialist for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), a quasi-state agency that works for the betterment of Native Hawaiians.”

Ohtomo spent her time with OHA advocating for Hawaiian rights and environmental causes, and also becoming heavily immersed in the world of GIS – Geographic Information Systems – an analytical and planning skill she had picked up in graduate school. Though she enjoyed the advocacy and GIS work, she was soon recruited to work as an environmental planning consultant at a large engineering and planning firm where she spent several years before being again recruited to Young Brothers.

“I liked my job at the agency because I could work on (environmental) issues that I was passionate about,” she said. “I chose to work for the consulting firm because I wanted to work on projects for the public good.”

During Ohtomo’s tenure at the consulting firm , she worked on the Honolulu transit program that is currently under construction. She was drawn to Young Brothers for similar reasons.

“Young Brothers is a publicly regulated utility, and it’s an essential part of the fabric of Hawaii. And even though I had worked on a lot of transportation projects, my exposure to marine transportation projects as a consultant was limited. I was given the chance to learn about a brand new industry from the inside.”

In her role at Young Brothers, Ohtomo works on strategic projects as assigned.

“My job is difficult to describe in a nutshell. It changes all the time. A lot of what I do tends to be issue management. As conditions change, issues come up, and the things I’m focusing on can change.”

Areas where she has contributed over the years include facilities improvements, customer and stakeholder outreach, process enhancements, and data analysis, among others.

In 2008, Ohtomo began angling for Young Brothers to use renewable energy, and two years later the company installed a 100-kilowatt photovoltaic system on the roof of its maintenance building in Honolulu. The system includes 432 solar modules and generates more than 180,000 kilowatt hours of energy annually, providing some 75 percent of the energy requirement at Young Brothers’ Maintenance Building and other nearby locations.

“The solar PV project was actually the reason I was pulled into the fuel cell project,” she explained.

The DOE and Sandia wanted a maritime demonstration site for a hydrogen fuel cell project, and they preferred to generate hydrogen for the fuel cell without relying on any fossil fuel.Ohtomo poses in front of a Young Brother's shipping container wearing safety hat and vest.

“Generating hydrogen by taking water and splitting it takes energy, and they wanted that energy to also come from a renewable source.”

Sandia wondered if Young Brothers’ solar PV system could provide that clean energy. The answer, Ohtomo said, was clearly ‘no.’

“Our system is fairly large for our location, but not large enough to use for something like this,” she said. “There simply wasn’t enough energy to go around.”

But Sandia retained interest in Young Brothers, Ohtomo said, and began outlining a project to test the hydrogen fuel cell-powered generator as an alternative to conventional diesel generators in a maritime environment. Young Brothers uses diesel generators to power refrigerated containers on the barges during transport.

“One of the things that was attractive about the fuel cell technology is that you only use what (fuel) you need,” she said. “Unlike a diesel generator, which is operating (at full strength) regardless of the power needed, a fuel cell generator is much more energy efficient with partial loads and uses less fuel as a result.”

Sandia and its contracted fuel cell integrator were responsible for providing the technical expertise. Young Brothers and Foss provided the maritime industry and operational input. Ohtomo helped managed the flow of information between Young Brothers and the rest of the project team, especially during the latter part of design and leading up to deployment.

Ohtomo poses in front of a tugboat wearing a safety hat and vest“I tried to make sure they designed things to make it work in our system, pulled together various departments like Operations, Maintenance, and Safety to decide where, when, and how we deployed, and helped anticipate and address any safety and training requirements,” she said.

In February, Sandia will compile its analysis of the operational, energy, safety, and cost-performance data to develop a business case for using hydrogen fuel cells at other commercial ports. The lab’s goal is to increase the likelihood of this clean-energy technology being adopted for use.

“It’s not so much that fuel cell technology is new or that it’s commercially viable yet, but it’s getting more attention now,” along with the growing public awareness of other renewable technologies.

More information about the Hydrogen Fuel Cell project can be found here.