Gov. David Ige has tapped Randy Iwase to head Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission, the state agency that has increasingly taken a leadership role in directing state energy policy, including the push for more solar, wind and geothermal energy.

He will take over at a time when the PUC faces major decisions, including the pending sale of Hawaiian Electric Industries to NextEra Energy, a company based in Palm Beach, Florida.

Iwase, who served as a supervising deputy attorney general whose division advised the PUC and Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, replaces Hermina Morita, who announced earlier this week that she was stepping down from the commission.

Iwase will chair the three-member commission, which also includes Lorraine Akiba and Michael Champley.

Randy-Iwase

Randy Iwase

Courtesy of Gov. David Ige's office

Iwase is also a former state lawmaker and Honolulu City Council member and served as chair of the Hawaii State Tax Review Commission from 2011 to 2012.

He also unsuccessfully ran against Linda Lingle for governor in 2006 as the Democratic nominee. Much like Ige, Iwase carried a low-profile as a lawmaker and was greatly outspent by his opponent in the gubernatorial race.

“Randy Iwase’s extensive experience makes him the right person to lead the Public Utilities Commission during this time of transition and transformation,” Ige said in a press release announcing the appointment.

Iwase’s appointment, which still must be approved by the Senate, ends weeks of speculation about who was going to chair the PUC.

Morita was appointed by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2011, amid praise from clean energy advocates. A former state lawmaker who chaired the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, she was seen as well versed in energy policy and a strong leader.

But by early last year, she had fallen out of favor with Abercrombie, and her former colleagues in the Legislature said that the governor was not going to nominate Morita for a second, four-year term.

Later, Abercrombie announced that he was keeping Morita on a hold-over basis, beyond the end of her term — meaning she could be replaced at any time.

Ige’s office announced Monday that Morita had withdrawn her name from consideration for the post. People close to the commission have told Civil Beat that she lacked the support of the other two commissioners.

The pending sale of Hawaii’s major utilities is the biggest issue facing the PUC.

Under a $4.3 billion deal expected to close by December, NextEra would assume ownership of the electric utilities serving Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County. HEI’s other subsidiary, American Savings Bank, would be spun off into an independent company.

Challenges facing Hawaii’s energy sector have grown increasingly complex. The utility is struggling to safely integrate increasing amounts of intermittent rooftop solar energy into its electric grids, frustrating residents wanting to switch to solar and solar companies whose sales have plummeted.

The PUC is also in the midst of ruling on HECO’s long-term energy plans, which total 2,731 pages and span five reports. The planning process has dragged on for two and a half years and left the sector without a clear roadmap for moving forward in plans to develop more renewable energy.

Commissioners are also expected to rule on proposals to begin importing liquefied natural gas to Hawaii to replace oil. The plans, supported by HECO and Hawaii Gas, have stirred criticism from renewable energy advocates. Meanwhile, plummeting oil prices have some questioning whether LNG, which was supposed to bring rate relief to Hawaii residents, is still worth it.

Key stakeholders in Hawaii’s energy sector, including government officials, lawmakers and executives of energy companies, learned of Iwase’s appointment during an annual legislative briefing at the Capitol sponsored by the Hawaii Energy Policy Forum, where Morita was a panelist. She was applauded for her years of service in the Legislature and on the commission.

Morita spoke with authority about the upcoming issues facing the PUC, which will now be handed over to Iwase, and in particular the NextEra deal, which she called “probably the most significant decision in the PUC’s history.”

“As we begin the investigation of one of the most significant business transactions in this state’s history, I believe the answer we seek is whether NextEra, a Florida-based company, can incorporate and will perpetuate in its corporate philosophy and structure, Hawaii’s triple bottom line: kuleana, taking responsibility; malama pono, to do what is right and just; and aloha, compassion and cooperation,” she told the audience. “Only then, I believe, can NextEra establish a true partnership with Hawaii.”

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