NextEra Energy’s announcement Wednesday of a $4.3 billion deal to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries has spurred state regulators to start gearing up for one of the biggest utility cases in Hawaii’s history.

The Public Utilities Commission, headed by Mina Morita, will soon be scrutinizing the proposed sale and considering whether to accept it, reject it, or — most likely — impose conditions.

Will the change in control help Hawaii achieve its renewable energy goals? Will it lower electric rates, currently among the nation’s highest? These and many more questions will be on the minds of the three-member commission and its staff as they evaluate the deal.

Connie Lau, President and CEO Hawaiian Electric Industries and Jim Robo Chairman and CEO, NEXTERA Energy, Inc. announce a merger with NEXTERA at suite 800, 1001 Bishop Street. Honolulu, Hawaii.  3 dec 2014. photograph by Cory Lum

Connie Lau, president and CEO Hawaiian Electric Industries, and Jim Robo chairman and CEO of NextEra Energy, announce the merger plan Wednesday in Honolulu.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Division of Consumer Advocacy, led by Jeff Ono, is tasked with pushing the PUC to make decisions in the best interests of almost half a million customers living in Honolulu, Hawaii and Maui counties who receive their power from HEI subsidiaries.

Ono plans to recruit outside experts to bolster the capabilities of his roughly 15-member staff.

“We’re going to hire consultants soon,” he told Civil Beat. “This is too big of a deal to try to handle it with our office staff.”

Ono didn’t know yet how many consultants he’d hire, or what the cost would be, but said his office will evaluate the proposal and see what it means for consumers.

“The potential to do something very good for the state of Hawaii is there.” — Jeff Ono, Hawaii Consumer Advocate

The state regulatory review process is expected to be long and complex. Officials have said they expect it will take a year, but Ono questioned whether this was a realistic timeline.

The process starts with a change-of-control application to the PUC, which will be filed within the next 60 days, according to HEI spokeswoman Monica Salter.

The PUC will develop a procedural schedule once it receives the application, said Deborah Kwan, the PUC’s chief of consumer affairs and compliance.

Then it’s a matter of deciding who can intervene in the case, which could include everyone from environmental groups to big electric customers. The number of interested parties that the PUC gives intervenor status to affects how long the process takes.

“I hope that they are liberal in letting parties in,” said Henry Curtis, who’s been directly involved with electric rate cases and energy planning for years in Hawaii as head of the nonprofit Life Of The Land and an appointed member of special PUC committees.

There are two major issues that the PUC has to wrestle with, he said. One is whether NextEra has the wherewithal to complete the sale, which seems like a safe bet given the size of the company, and the other is whether the sale is in the public interest.

“I imagine that’s going to be thornier,” Curtis said of the second issue.

‘A lot of confidential documents’

The public will be able to follow the case on the PUC’s website through its docket management system. It’s unlikely all of the submitted information will be made public, though.

Certain financial information is often redacted and sometimes entire pages are blacked out. It’s up to the companies to disclose what they want and it’s up to the PUC to push back and require more transparency if the process gets overly secretive.

“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of confidential documents filed,” Ono said.

It’s a matter of deciding who can intervene in the case, which could include everyone from environmental groups to big electric customers.

The NextEra deal, which Ono said came as a surprise, is the biggest he has seen in Hawaii.

“We’re optimistic,” he said, noting the Florida-based company’s huge financial backing and involvement in wind and solar energy development.

“The potential to do something very good for the state of Hawaii is there,” Ono said.

Officials are hopeful that NextEra will be able to meet or exceed HEI-subsidiary Hawaiian Electric Company’s goals of achieving 65 percent renewable energy by 2030 while tripling the amount of solar power and reducing electricity bills by 20 percent.

“We want to make sure there are sufficient consumer benefits in this deal,” Ono said.

Morita declined a request for an interview.

“The PUC declines to comment at this time because it anticipates receiving an application regarding the recently announced transaction between NextEra and HEI, which it will review to determine if it is reasonable and in the public interest,” Kwan said in an emailed response.

KIUC, Hawaiian Telcom Deals Were Renegotiated

It’s been 12 years since an electric utility was sold in Hawaii.

In April 2000, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative asked the PUC to approve a $270 million deal to buy Kauai Electric, a subsidiary of Connecticut-based Citizens Communications.

The PUC shot that deal down four months later after hearing concerns about the price. It took until March 2002 for the deal to be renegotiated and submitted again to the commission. In November 2002, the PUC approved the $215 million sale.

KIUC’s annual report last year shows the residential rate for KIUC members falling 1.6 percent from 2008 to 2013 while HECO’s rates increased 21.5 percent.

The PUC held a public hearing in the KIUC case even though it wasn’t required to do so, something the commission did two years later in the Hawaiian Telcom case.

In 2004, the Carlyle Group, based in Washington, D.C., announced a $1.65 billion deal to buy Verizon Hawaii and rename it Hawaiian Telcom.

The PUC imposed significant restrictions and the base price was dropped $50 million. The $1.6 billion deal went through in May 2005.

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