It isn’t often that appointed officials step up, draw a line in the sand, and arm for battle. But last week our long-suffering and overworked Hawaii Public Utility Commissioners issued a ringing wake up call to the HECO electric companies. We don’t know what new corporate outrage triggered this response, but it’s clear the Commission has finally had enough.

True to the regulatory process, the “Commission’s Observations and Perspectives” are hidden in gentle and opaque language in Appendix C of a 156-page docket. (Docket No. 2011-0092)

But the Commission’s resolve is clear enough from the accompanying press release.

Translated into plain English, the Commission told the companies to start serving the customers and stop serving themselves.

They accused them of using the Hawaii Clean Energy Agreement as a smokescreen hiding poor performance and poor service.

They chided them for profiting from automatic rate adjustments, without providing anything in return.

The Commission questioned whether HECO’s capital investments (including, presumably, giant, boondoggle wind farms) are simply profit grabs with “no long-term customer value.”

They stated flatly that the companies “lack movement to a sustainable business model,” and compared them unfavorably with “top industry performers.” (This probably reflects Commission frustration with the companies’ arrogant refusal to take the Integrated Resource Planning process seriously — even though the PUC let the companies shape that process.)

Most important, the Commission clarified roles and responsibilities:

“… attractive financial returns are not a utility entitlement.”

“… the achievement of a high performing, customer focused and financially viable electric utility with affordable rates is the responsibility of the electric utility management, not the commission …”

Finally, they promised consequences: Continued company failure will result in “arduous regulatory scrutiny and oversight of utility expenditures, operations and investments…” in other words, a microscope and a big stick.

In response, HECO’s Chief Disinformation Officer mouthed the usual cooperative pieties. But it’s a good bet the utility has already launched lobbyists towards the Governor’s Office and the Legislature, in hopes of pulling the Commission’s teeth and weakening its resolve. A pampered monopoly, long accustomed to bleed easy millions from captive customers, is not going to become public minded without a long fight.

We the people therefore need to wake up as well. It’s time for everyone in Hawaii who is tired of outrageous energy bills, mediocre service, and insulting, customer-financed propaganda (remember the Jimmy Gomez commercial?) to let our officials know that we stand behind our PUC. The Commissioners are patient, knowledgable and fair-minded people. If we support them, they can reshape the utility to meet public needs.

But they definitely need public support — and a bigger Commission budget wouldn’t hurt, either.

This docket is the opening shot in a long struggle, a struggle in which we and our children and grandchildren have a huge stake. We all need to get and stay involved, to make doubly sure that private manipulators don’t once again derail our long-term public interest.

If you agree, contact your local Senators and Representatives, and let them know loud and clear that you support the Commission. Long Live Our PUC!

About the author: Larry Tool lives on Molokai and is a former college instructor, longtime Bay Area business owner, local official in Martinez, CA in the mid-90s, reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 80s and 90s.

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