Hawaii’s electric rates are so high some residents have been forced to burn candles at night and cook on kiawe, lawmakers say.

Now, they want Hawaii’s electric company to do more to bring costs down and on Tuesday threatened utility executives that if they didn’t act faster the Legislature would.

“I’m not convinced you folks are really committed,” Sen. Malama Solomon, who chairs the Senate Water and Land Committee, told a roomful of energy executives, state officials and others at an informational hearing that included two committees. “We’ve been pushing you the whole time politically to make this happen. So my thoughts are we should maybe push you more.”

Solomon, a Big Island Democrat, is clearly frustrated after spending the past three decades working on energy issues.

She accused Hawaiian Electric Co. Vice President Robbie Alm of standing in the way of renewable energy solutions.

Alm acknowledged that the state’s biggest utility, which provides power to everyone in Hawaii except people on Kauai and those who are off the grid, took awhile to support renewable energy. But he said HECO has undergone a substantial transition.

“There’s no percentage to us doing oil,” Alm said. “It’s not a good product.”

Solomon said the ultimate solution may be in a consumer-owned grid, which Alm said HECO hasn’t considered.

Jay Ignacio, president of Hawaii Electric Light Company, HECO’s Big Island subsidiary, said he hates high energy prices as much as anyone.

“We are not standing in the way of accepting more renewables,” he said.

Solomon seemed particularly annoyed with Ignacio, speaking over him when he tried to answer questions and calling him “out of order.”

Sen. Roz Baker, chair of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, said the real concern is the growing disparity that’s happening because of high electric rates. Those who can afford to get off the grid do, inadvertently sticking those less fortunate with the tab.

“It’s not just individuals that are impacted,” she said. “It could be said that it’s our very economic growth. Increasing costs may require policy and regulatory action sooner rather than later.”

The Legislature is considering various ways to address the problem, including a proposal from the governor’s office.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie is championing legislation that would make it easier for renters and low-income residents to take advantage of solar hot water heaters and photovoltaics, which can reduce a home’s electric bill overnight.

Alm said this “low-hanging fruit” is the best bet to reduce electric rates in the near future.

“There should be solar water heaters on every roof in this state,” he said.

Hawaii’s electric rates are continuing to rise in part because solar energy has been so successful, especially recently.

From 2002 to 2011, 55 megawatts of photovoltaics were installed statewide, Morita said. In 2012 alone, more than 50 megawatts of solar panels were put on the roofs of homes and businesses.

Public Utilities Commission Chair Mina Morita said reducing the state’s electric rates depends on integrating all resources and improving efficiency.

“There is no one solution, resource or technology to lower costs,” she said.

The PUC and the state consumer advocate, Jeff Ono, are directly involved in determining electric rates, as they did this week in a settlement with HECO. The utility was hoping to pass on $60 million in expenses to customers.

Ono said he supports liquefied natural gas because it burns cleaner than the fossil fuels currently used and would reduce electric bills.

LNG Still A Real Possibility

Despite environmental groups’ push to move away from fossil fuels, state officials and power company executives say LNG could help lower the nation’s highest electric rates.

Alm said bringing LNG to Oahu would require finding a way around a decades-old federal shipping law known as the Jones Act, which requires shipping between U.S. ports be done on U.S. ships with American crews.

The late-Sen. Daniel K. Inouye had indicated it’s possible to get a waiver to the Jones Act which would allow the importation of LNG, Alm said.

Alm said one of the biggest short-term issues Hawaii faces, beyond the business model of LNG, is where the infrastructure should be located. He said offshore moorings, similar to those used for dropping off oil, seem promising.

Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee, questioned why LNG facilities would be interested in working with Hawaii at all, given the high cost.

Alm said LNG development has come a long way over the past six years, including being able to process it in smaller amounts, and the Aloha State would be a steady importer. Another big reason Alm thinks Hawaii would be attractive to LNG exporters is pleasing President Obama, a Hawaii native son.

“We’re in Hawaii and we have a Hawaiian president,” Alm said. “I don’t mean for that to sound like a smug remark, but the reality is everybody in the country is interested in what the Obama Administration does and if it ends up helping Obama’s home state we’re happy to have that connection.”

Still, Gabbard questioned why Hawaii should invest in LNG if the long-term goal remains renewables.

Alm said even if HECO meets the state requirement of 40 percent renewable energy by 2030, the utility wants to use the cleaner-burning and potentially cheaper LNG instead of oil as part of the other 60 percent of its fuel source. In 2012, Oahu only got 6 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

Read the presentations from HECO and PUC, along with testimony from Ono, here:

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