Meet Henk Rogers, video game icon turned climate champion

Canary chats with the real-life protagonist of the upcoming Tetris film about its backstory, his storage company Blue Planet Energy and the fate of the universe.
By Mike Munsell

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Canary Media’s Climate Meets Culture column explores the intersection of energy, climate and the culture at large.

Video game fans, movie buffs and Taron Egerton lovers, have I got a story for you. It’s also a story for energy storage wonks.

But first — while you read it, I highly recommend playing this background music (Spotify link).

Tetris, one of the bestselling video games of all time, was created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov in then-Soviet Russia. It skyrocketed to mainstream success in the U.S. after being bundled with Nintendo’s original Game Boy in 1989. The game ultimately sold over 40 million copies in that format and a staggering 520 million copies across all platforms.

A gray rectangular game boy console next to a small gray plastic game with Tetris on the label
(Dann Aragrim)

The story of how Tetris got into tens of millions of hands involves tense meetings in Cold War–era Russia — some say the decision to allow the game to be sold to the West may have even reached as high as Mikhail Gorbachev. And at the center of it all was Dutch-born video game designer and publisher Henk Rogers.

The film industry took note of the dramatic backstory, and Apple produced a movie starring Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers that will be released in March on Apple TV+.

a white man with brown hair and a brown mustache gazes into the distance
Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers (Apple TV+)

So where does energy storage fit in?

In addition to founding The Tetris Company, Henk Rogers has started a number of climate-aligned companies and organizations, including The Blue Planet Foundation and its for-profit offshoot, Hawaii-based energy storage firm Blue Planet Energy.

I reached out to Rogers to discuss the movie, video games and his work as a climatetech entrepreneur.

What follows is the condensed and edited version of our conversation, which spans perestroika, Super Mario, aliens and the quest for a safer lithium-ion battery chemistry. A word of caution: There may be one or two minor movie spoilers.

Mike Munsell: Why do you think that filmmakers wanted to make a movie about Tetris and your story?

Henk Rogers: Well, the BBC produced a documentary in 2004 about my trip to Moscow [to negotiate the rights to sell Tetris in the U.S.]. It was called From Russia With Love. This story takes place in 1989. It’s still the Soviet Union. And so, me getting on a plane with a tourist visa and trying to find a ministry [i.e., a government agency] — the whole thing was like an adventure game. It’s like going to North Korea today and trying to find a ministry. You’re not supposed to be there.

Two men in overcoats stand in a large european square
Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (left) stands with Henk Rogers (right) in Moscow's Red Square. (

It also takes place toward the end of the Soviet Union. There are all these things like perestroika and glasnost going on in the Soviet Union at that time, and the people, they’re all on a knife’s edge. I’m wondering, am I breaking the law? Am I going against the Politburo? Or am I now practicing perestroika? The idea that the Russians would actually talk to me and make a deal with me would have been unthinkable a few years before. Because those orders come from above, right? Nobody down below gets to make that kind of decision. But because of Gorbachev’s directives, they felt that they were empowered to do something that hadn’t been done before.

If you look at all the computer games in the history of the game industry, there probably is not one that has as interesting of an origin story as Tetris.

So yeah, I can understand why they would want to make a movie.

Munsell: You ended up meeting with Nintendo and got the rights to sell Tetris to them. I read that you argued for packaging the Game Boy with Tetris instead of Super Mario Land because it would resonate with more people. Does the movie continue down that storyline?

Rogers: Oh, yeah. That’s central to the movie. And that actually happened. I did sit in a room with [Nintendo of America founder and then-president] Mr. Arakawa. I said, Mr. Arakawa, I know you plan to pack in a game with the Game Boy when you release it in the U.S. You always do. You should pack in Tetris.” And he said, Why should I pack in Tetris? I have Mario.” I said, If you want little boys to buy your Game Boy, then pack in Mario. But if you want everyone to buy your Game Boy, pack in Tetris. And then you can still sell Mario afterward to the little boys.” He called in his geniuses, and they agreed.

Munsell: Mario is so central to Nintendo. That’s like telling Walt Disney, You know — Mickey Mouse — just forget about him for a minute. We’ve got this other thing that more people will like.”

How involved were you, if at all, in the making of this new movie?

Rogers: Alexey Pajitnov (the creator of Tetris) and I got to look at the script. It’s a Hollywood script; it’s a movie. It’s not about history, so a lot of [what’s in the movie] never happened. But the filmmakers asked us a bunch of questions about what it was really like. They wanted to capture the darkness and the brooding, how nervous I was — Am I seriously going to come away with the rights to Tetris? Or am I going to end up in a gulag?” These were the kind of thoughts that were going through my head. We spent a lot of time going over iterations of the script. They tried their best to accept our changes when they had to do with authenticity. But when it started getting into [creative flourishes like] the car chase and all that, it was like, OK, now it’s all them.” We couldn’t change anything.

Munsell: Were you an avid video game player in the 80s? And do you still play today?

Rogers: Space Invaders became really popular in arcades in Japan, where I was living at the time. I played a lot of Space Invaders, and I played a lot of Galaxian, which was the next game in that genre. When Pac-Man came up, I decided I was spending too much time and money on this. I made a conscious decision not to get sucked into another game, though I still let myself get sucked into computer games every once in a while. Whenever something comes up that looks like it’s changing the industry, I’ve got to understand what’s going on, so I did spend a lot of time playing World of Warcraft. And going way back, I even wrote two games. One was The Black Onyx, [one of the first] role-playing games in Japan. I wrote it in 1983, and it was the No. 1 game in Japan in 1984.

Now, I play Wordle with my brothers and even my father. We share our scores every day.

Perhaps MJ Shiao was right.

From consumer tech to climatetech 

Munsell: How did you go from video games to where you are today with Blue Planet Energy and Blue Planet Foundation?

Rogers: In 2002, I started a mobile-phone game company called Blue Lava Wireless. Of course, we had Tetris. I sold that company to Jamdat, which later got swallowed up by Electronic Arts. I made a bunch of money. A month after I sold the company, I found myself in the back of an ambulance with a widow-maker heart attack.

In the ambulance, the first thing I thought was, You’ve got to be kidding me. I haven’t spent any of the money yet!” But the second thing I thought was, No, I’m not going. I still have stuff to do.” In the recovery room, I started thinking: What did I mean by stuff”? The first mission came to me on the back of a newspaper. It said we’re going to kill all the coral in the world by the end of the century. I moved to Hawaii for the first time when I was 18. Surfing, diving — I fell in love with the ocean and lived on the beach for a year, for Christ’s sake. So I said, what’s causing this? It’s ocean acidification, it’s carbon dioxide — we’re causing it! So Mission No. 1 was very obvious: end the use of carbon-based fuel. That’s the basis for all the other things that I’ve been doing since then.

Well, not all the other things, as I have four missions.

Munsell: Four missions? Can you run through those quickly?

Rogers: End the use of carbon-based fuel, end war, take humans to other planets, and find out how the universe ends and do something about it.

Munsell: Find out how the universe ends?

Rogers: I don’t pretend to know anything about this mission. It could have been some alien from the future that transmitted this mission into my brain. Every once in a while, I talk to cosmologists and see what’s going on. We might eventually be at an inflection point where we can make the universe last longer. I don’t think we’ll have the technology for another 1,000 years, or whatever. But eventually, we will. I think that mission is basically there to make the other missions seem reasonable.

Munsell: I like it. So tell me more about Mission No. 1.

Rogers: There was the Industrial Revolution, and later the invention of the computer. We take these things for granted, but they took revolutionary effort. Ending the use of carbon-based fuel is one of those things — we will end the use of carbon-based fuel one way or another in the next I-don’t-know-how-many decades. I prefer it to be 2045 because that’s the 100th anniversary of the United Nations. We can totally do this. We have the technology. The only thing is inertia from the fossil-fuel industry, and our own resistance to change. That’s what’s in the way.

Munsell: Let’s talk more about that. I gather you are an influential figure in getting Hawaii’s net-zero goal in place.

Rogers: The first implementation of my mission was to look at Hawaii. Why Hawaii? Because I need to clean up my room before I ask people in other places to clean up their rooms. At that time, Hawaii spent $5 billion a year on oil and $1 billion a year on coal. Thirty percent of the oil was going to jet fuel, 30% to ground transportation, 40%, or $2 billion, to electricity — in a place where we have the best sun in the country. We have wind, and we have geothermal. We are the mecca of renewable energy. Why were we spending $3 billion a year on fossil fuel to make electricity? It made no sense. And yet, changing it was really hard. Hawaiian Electric basically didn’t want to listen to us. So we formed the Blue Planet Foundation. It took us three years to get legislation passed. We were the first state in the country to commit to a mandate of 100% renewable energy.

We did a rough calculation that the mandate would save ratepayers $7 billion by 2040. More recently, we changed the business model of the utility so it would make more money by switching to renewable energy. Guess who’s our best friend now? We’ve already reached our 2030 goal of 40% renewable energy.

From clean energy to energy storage

Munsell: I know you’re in the business of energy storage. Can you tell me a little bit more about your company Blue Planet Energy?

Rogers: When we passed laws to help the solar industry, there was a boom in solar in Hawaii. And all of a sudden the electric companies said, Wait, wait, wait. We cannot handle that much intermittent solar on the grid.” So I started thinking. How do we solve that? We solve it by adding storage to the equation.

We searched for the most environmentally friendly battery. I don’t want switching to renewables to become another disaster, environmentally or any other way. So we landed on lithium ferrous phosphate (LFP), which is noncombustible. It lasts twice as long as the nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) [battery chemistry]. It doesn’t have any of those nasty rare-earth elements in it. It’s not flammable; it doesn’t catch on fire. 

A smiling man with salt and pepper hair in a ponytail and a beard sits next to a large technological device

Munsell: Are there many other residential and commercial storage companies using the same battery chemistry as Blue Planet?

Rogers: Other companies are starting to get in on it. But we’ve got a huge head start on everybody. We’ve been doing this for years. And I’m sure everybody, including Tesla, is going to switch over to the new chemistry.

Munsell: How do costs compare with the more commonly used NMC lithium-ion batteries?

Rogers: It’s slightly more expensive. Although it shouldn’t be because we’re not buying anything from the Congo or scraping something from the bottom of the ocean. I think it’s just a question of volume. Now the volume of lithium ferrous phosphate is going up, so the price is going to come down. We’ve been the most expensive battery in the business, but you get what you pay for. You get the safety; you get the longevity. If you look at the total life of ownership, we’re the cheapest because we last the longest.

Munsell: We are almost at the end of the interview. Do you have a hard stop, or can we go a couple of minutes over? 

Rogers: Let me see. Oh, I have another Zoom meeting. It’s with Burning Man. I’m working with them to end the use of carbon-based fuel at Burning Man.

A large colorful tent in the desert comprising multicolored blocks
One of avid Burning Man attendee Henk Roger’s Tetris-themed installations (Burning Man/Phillipe Glade)

Munsell: OK, a couple more quick questions. Canary’s audience is largely climatetech practitioners and policymakers. What advice do you have for them?

Rogers: First of all, welcome to the club. We as an industry have to organize. Lithium ferrous phosphate is still called lithium-ion, so it gets bundled together with the more flammable nickel manganese cobalt. And just because it says lithium-ion, it’s treated like hazmat. Let’s call it something else — call it ferrous phosphate instead of lithium-ion. I want people to understand safety is an important factor. Let’s switch to a chemistry that’s benign and clean up our act.

My other message to everyone is about solving the climate crisis: We are doing this. We are doing this. This is not like we may do it or we hope we’ll do it. People ask me if I have hope. The answer is no, I do not have hope. I have determination. In order to solve this problem, we have to have determination. And if we do, it’ll be solved way ahead of time.

Munsell: One last question. Did you ever think about getting into gravity-based storage, using large falling tetrominoes under the Tetris brand name?

Rogers: Actually, one of my storage ideas for Burning Man was to make a big pyramid and lift a tank by using wind power for a couple of weeks. But my engineers told me there’s just not enough energy in that tank to power a camp.

Munsell: Well, it has been an absolute pleasure. I was an 80s baby turned child of the 90s. I had the big gray Game Boy with Tetris and played it all the time. So thank you for your gaming contributions and for your work trying to save the planet, and perhaps the universe. And say hi to Burning Man for me.

Now sit back and enjoy the trailer of the upcoming film with Taron Egerton starring as Blue Planet Energy’s Henk Rogers.

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Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.