There seems to be nothing but love for Randy Iwase.

Gov. David Ige’s nominee to head the state Public Utilities Commission easily cleared a Senate committee hurdle Tuesday. He’s on track to be confirmed by the full Senate, possibly by the end of this week.

Friends and former colleagues heaped praise on Iwase when he went before the Senate Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection, chaired by Roz Baker. But the adoration didn’t stop at the state level.

Randy Iwase speaks to senators at the Capitol.  17 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Randy Iwase speaks to senators at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz told Civil Beat during an Editorial Board meeting Tuesday that he has no doubt Iwase will try to do right by ratepayers and deliver when it comes to advancing Ige’s energy priorities.

“Randy is a great guy,” Schatz said, calling him “fearless.”

Iwase is an attorney by trade who served in the Honolulu City Council, Legislature and Attorney General’s Office. He ran for governor against Republican Linda Lingle in 2006 but lost by a wide margin.

Baker asked him about what she considered to be the most important undertaking the PUC will face in the near-future — NextEra Energy’s offer to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries for $4.3 billion, a merger that could reshape the electric utility landscape in Hawaii.

For starters, Iwase said that even though he isn’t legally required to, he’s inclined to hold public hearings about the deal on not just the four main Hawaiian Islands but also Lanai and Molokai.

That may be reassuring to hear for some lawmakers. There’s a bill moving forward this session that would require the PUC to ensure the evaluation process is handled with the public interest in mind. House Bill 619, introduced by Rep. Chris Lee, is set to be heard Wednesday afternoon by the Consumer Protection Committee.

Iwase recognized that the PUC’s determination on the merger, which he expects will take a year to 18 months, will be a “historic decision.” He said the decision will ripple out and affect jobs, the economy, even retirees depending on their stock shares and dividends from Hawaiian Electric.

In the meantime, Iwase said he’s been hiring researchers and others to get the PUC staffed up to be ready for the NextEra case and other pending dockets, such as liquefied natural gas.

Iwase has no doubt there will be a contested case hearing on the merger and acquisition. His hope is that there will be intervenors from various stakeholders, including Native Hawaiian interests, environmental, solar industry and independent power producers.

“The standard we’re going to be applying is fitness and public interest,” he said.

Iwase said he’s close to hiring an executive director, a new position for the PUC. He told lawmakers that they will be “very pleased with the name and the qualifications,” but it was premature to say who it was at this point. He expects the director to start by the end of March though.

Asked about concerns that the PUC was “dysfunctional,” Iwase told Baker that he’d let her know if he agreed by the end of the year but felt confident about his staff and its direction. He thanked his predecessor, Mina Morita, for putting forward a solid organizational plan and setting up a good road map.

Iwase, said he was humbled that Ige nominated a “senior citizen” and that he has been given one more opportunity to serve the public. He acknowledged that he’s not an expert in utilities or energy regulations, but said his training as a lawyer and his strong grasp of public policy will help him succeed.

From necessity, technology and political standpoints, he said, “the stars are aligning over the utility field.”

Iwase received support from the other two commissioners he will work with, Mike Champley and Lorraine Akiba, as well as former PUC Chair Carlito Caliboso, environmental groups and labor unions.

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