With so much press coverage of the Public Utilities Commission’s Sept. 4 “listening session” on Maui on the proposed NextEra/Hawaiian Electric merger, I was certain one or two reporters would ferry over to Lanai the next morning to hear what we had to say. Alas, they all went home, I guess giving up one day of the Labor Day weekend was enough.

Actually there were two meetings here on Lanai the first week in September, and the one that took place three days before the PUC arrived was by far the most interesting. But first, let’s compare the two initial PUC sessions.

Reports said about 200 people showed up at Lihikai Elementary School Friday night on Maui, and 49 actually spoke (35 were against the merger, 11 favored it, and three individuals posed comments/concerns). This is out of a population of about 144,000 (2010 census) so those 49 speakers equal about .0003 percent of the total Maui Island population.

Only 30-something souls walked into Lanai High and Elementary’s cafeteria the next day, and just 10 had something to say. But Lanai’s population is only +/- 3,200, so those 10 speakers work out to be .003 percent of all of us. This was not bad, given a memorial service for a much-beloved member of the community was taking place at the same time on the other side of the island.

About half of Lanai’s 30 attendees were, in fact, either PUC staff or NextEra or Maui Electric (MECO) employees. Four Lanai residents attended but didn’t speak, and two of these represent Friends of Lanai; we (I am one) were prohibited by PUC Order from saying anything, because FOL is one of 28 intervening parties to the merger docket.

So what did our 10 Lanaians have to say?

Lanai

Scenic Lanai

Flickr.com/Justin Ornellas

Maui County Council Member Riki Hokama informed the PUC that he did not support the merger, and would be introducing a resolution to the full Council to that effect shortly. He said each island has its own energy needs to be addressed and it’s time to be looking at a new business model.

Seven other Lanai residents also opposed joining the two corporations, here’s what they told the PUC:

  • “We always seem to be left behind on Lanai. What NextEra has on the table does not guarantee energy efficiency efforts or lower rates.”
  • “The HECO Companies would be only one of over 700 subsidiaries. NextEra appears to be only ‘profit-centered’ and you (PUC) should be looking at other models, like the Green Mountain Power model in Vermont.”
  • “Twenty-two cents a day in savings is not impressive. What are NextEra’s plans for upgrading Lanai’s grid? How will NextEra make Lanai 100 percent renewable? Why can’t we see NextEra’s plans up front?”
  • “Lanai faces significant costs for electricity, and we get savings of only $0.22 cents a day? This doesn’t even cover the cost of one kWh! How can a Florida-based corporation understand Hawaii’s culture and communities?”
  • “We can do better than trading one monopoly for another, where stockholders take no risks. I applaud the legislators who want to look into the possibility of a public utility.”
  • “I’m concerned (NextEra) is not willing to share details. They seem arrogant and only interested in waving around money. Pardon my paranoia, but my big questions are: what’s in it for them? And why here?”
  • “NextEra hasn’t earned our trust yet. They talk about ‘centralized generation’ and ‘energy sharing.’ Does ‘centralized generation’ mean one big generation plant someplace on Oahu? Does ‘energy sharing’ include windmills on Lanai plus an undersea cable? I am opposed to both windmills on Lanai and the cable. Will NextEra listen to us after the proposed merger, if they don’t listen to us now?”
  • One individual spoke for his full three minutes but was unclear enough on what he thought about the takeover that PUC Chair Randall Iwase was forced to ask, “So what really is your position? Do you support or oppose?”

There was only one person who fully supported the NextEra takeover, and she said that “NextEra has expertise throughout Canada and the U.S.  — what will we do without them? We don’t have the expertise here in our state, so just let NextEra do what it wants to do!!”

This NextEra supporter rates a special shout-out, not only for her interesting comments on the State of Hawaii’s perceived deficiencies in the expertise area, but because she organized the far more interesting special session with NextEra’s President, Eric Gleason, three days before the PUC arrived on Sept. 5. She even emailed invitees a CV of Gleason and offered refreshments. The PUC did not.

I was not invited, but I went anyway.

I was elated to see more than 50 individuals appear at the ILWU hall on Wednesday, Sept. 2. “This is great!” I thought. Look at all these people interested in who’s going to provide their electricity! But straight away one young woman asked me, “Aunty, do you know why we are here?”

Soon after, another asked me, “Is this the meeting about the hospital sale?”

Being quick on the uptake, I then started asking others why they thought they were in the ILWU hall at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. I soon learned that most of the attendees were being paid for their time, having been told to attend a “mandatory” meeting that morning when they clocked in for work.

But they were here and hopefully listening to Mr. Gleason’s presentation. Which was quite polished and readily responsive to the few questions posed by residents, most of which were asked by those who were not on anyone’s clock.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • In response to a question on what, exactly, was net metering, Gleason said the utility pays those of us with PV systems the retail rate of 40 cents per kWh for energy we produce but don’t use, while utility-scale projects on Maui can come in at 12 cents a kWh. He said this was why Florida has so few PV systems: natural gas (albeit another fossil fuel) and nuclear power are so much cheaper, few Floridians elect to install PV. Unfortunately Gleason left out the fact that every current net-metering PV customer here in Hawaii is zeroed out at the end of each year, forfeiting any payment for exported solar they don’t consume – which the utility then sells to someone else for 40 cents per kWh. So this is power the utility gets for free, and sells for a profit.
  • In response to a question on whether Big Wind and an undersea cable would resurface, based on the need to reach 100 percent by 2045, Mr. Gleason assured Lanaians that NextEra “didn’t think the Big Wind project makes sense” and pointed out that interconnecting Maui-Molokai-Lanai is technically feasible, but expensive. “If customers on Molokai and Lanai had to pay for those cables, you would not be happy, you’d want to run us out of town.”
  • When asked what he thought about Maui County hiring a consultant to explore whether a municipal or cooperative utility format would be doable, Gleason said he was “personally skeptical that this would be a great path for Maui County” since munis and coops in Florida all have higher rates than Florida Power & Light offers. I’m not sure what this has to do with us, but never mind.
  • He said that even though he couldn’t tell us what NextEra had specifically planned, for anywhere here in Hawaii, once the merger was approved NextEra has “committed to filing new resource plans” and “committed to collaborating with communities in developing those plans.” (Let’s remember this one, people.)
  • One of the immediate benefits of the merger he could explain is that each Lanai residential customer paying an average monthly bill of $200 might save $400 over the first five years. Asked if this was $400 each year, Gleason took great pains to explain that the $400 in savings was not each year, but $400 over five years or about, well, 22 cents per day as it turns out. This was good information, I’m glad we straightened that out.

I’m sure that many at the ILWU hall gathering learned something new. Unfortunately, even though Mr. Gleason (and the newly hired Jennifer Sabas) encouraged everyone to attend the PUC session the following Saturday — presumably to show support for the merger — pretty much everyone opted out, except for the ILWU-hall meeting organizer who thinks we have no expertise here in Hawaii.

But after all, it was Labor Day weekend.

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