If NextEra Energy’s big-money acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries fails, where would that leave Hawaii?

Would the state — as top executives from NextEra have suggested in their testimony at the regulatory hearings at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center — be stuck in the slow lane with Hawaiian Electric, plodding toward the state’s ambitious renewable energy goals? Wouldn’t it be better, they say, to kick things into turbo with an efficient, fast-moving company like NextEra that is geared for success?

But the notion that the Public Utilities Commission, which is supposed to decide whether the $4.3 billion acquisition is in the public interest, faces a choice between NextEra and how things are was challenged in testimony Friday.

“To view this case as solely about NextEra, up or down, is to make a false comparison between the status quo and the NextEra acquisition,” attorney Scott Hempling told the commission.

Lone cyclist rides near the Hawaiian Electric Pearl City plant. 22 aug 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This Hawaiian Electric plant in Pearl City is part of the infrastructure that could end up in the hands of NextEra Energy.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hempling, an expert with decades of experience in energy regulation, is an expert witness on behalf of the Hawaii Office of Planning.

He spent much of the day being counter-examined. Then he warned the commission that if it stands in the way of NextEra’s purchase of Hawaiian Electric, it could stir up an array of risks for Hawaii — unless energy regulators place a rejection of the deal in a broader context that supplies a constructive way forward.

“If the commission rejects this acquisition, and says nothing more, there will be great ambiguity” in financial, energy distribution and alternative energy markets, he said.

The commission is in the midst of several complex electricity dockets that could help define the future of electricity in a state that is seeking to find its way amid a dramatic shift toward renewable energy.

Many of the foot soldiers in that transition are companies that need clarity to allow them to make sound investment decisions, but the path toward Hawaii’s ambitious renewable energy goals remains a work in progress.

Regulators have repeatedly rejected — or demanded amendments to — Hawaiian Electric’s plans for the future.

“And so, rejecting the merger and putting yourself back in the position where there is severe dissatisfaction with HECO’s performance and an urgent need to define the future, and saying nothing about where you would go next, is not an optimal place to be,” Hempling said.

“Having, I think, reached a near-decision that HECO alone is not your future, it would be time to start down the path to ask: How do we get to that future?”

PUC Chief Counsel Thomas Gorak asked the merger consultant if he was suggesting that regulators reject the deal as not being in the public interest, and call on the company to put itself on the market in an open-bidding process.

“I’m hesitating,” Hempling replied, “because a commission can only do so much.”

He advised regulators to step back and proceed in an orderly fashion. First, they should finish preparing planning documents to figure out, for example, what type of power-supply mix they want, and what sort of companies would be most suitable to satisfy that.

Such decisions, by themselves, Hempling said, could signal which companies might make for a reasonable alternative to NextEra, or might show that the Florida-based company is the best choice after all.

“NextEra may very well be the best company,” said the consultant.

Hempling suggested he was agnostic on the issue of the type of ownership the utility should have. On questioning from Gorak, he said that non-investor-owned utilities, including co-ops and municipally owned ones, might make sense for Hawaii, but that private companies could make sense too.

Given the monopoly on grid ownership, he argued, “the customer has only the commission to protect it, and so the commission has to act by setting criteria that select the best.”

“In light of your severe dissatisfaction with HECO,” Hempling said, “it is time to think that way.”

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