2015 promises to be a complicated year in Hawaii’s energy landscape. On the horizon, we have the sale of a power company that has been deeply intertwined with development in Hawaii since the 19th century, key decisions by the state about whether or not to commit to liquefied natural gas, and other significant steps in Hawaii’s path toward more affordable and sustainable electricity generation.

The Hawaii Public Utilities Commission is charged with navigating this difficult terrain and ensuring that both consumers and utilities get a fair shake. But unless the commission gets a major boost, both in terms of funding and staffing, the cards are stacked against it — and by extension, all of us.

Let’s stop for a moment to appreciate the Herculean tasks currently facing the PUC.

Hawaiian Electric plant Ala Moana Boulevard downtown Honolulu. 15 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civll Beat

The Hawaiian Electric Co. plant on Ala Moana Boulevard in downtown Honolulu.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Most publicly, the commission must rule on the $4.3 billion deal between the Hawaiian Electric Co. — Hawaii’s electric monopoly, which serves Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County — and NextEra Energy, a Florida-based company.

The PUC is tasked with determining if the deal is in the public interest, a ruling that former PUC chair Hermina Morita said is “probably the most significant decision in the PUC’s history.”

At the same time, the commission is reviewing HECO’s long-term energy plans, which are detailed in five separate reports spanning 2,731 pages. The reports are supposed to provide a roadmap for the utility’s future in renewable energy, including how it plans to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable energy sources from 30 percent to 65 percent by 2030 and triple the amount of solar energy on its electric grids.

The PUC’s responsibilities don’t start and end there.

The commission is also expected to rule on several proposals to bring liquefied natural gas to the islands — an arduous undertaking in its own right. Like most energy policy, the debate surrounding liquefied natural gas can feel like it requires advanced degrees in economics, engineering and environmental policy with a minor in fortune telling to fully comprehend.

If that weren’t enough, the PUC is also facing questions about smart grids, interisland cables and the ever present goal of lowering consumer bills since Hawaii consumer electricity bills are three times the national average.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the PUC is supposed to regulate phone companies, bus companies and dozens of other businesses as well.

Phew.

Imagine having to tackle all that even in the best of circumstances. Now imagine how the PUC is supposed to achieve it all given its reality as an underfunded, understaffed government agency.

The plight of the PUC is nothing new. Back in 2011, Civil Beat reported that the commission lagged far behind those in other states, taking twice as long as the national average to resolve rate cases.

The commission is notorious for being shortstaffed as is the Consumer Advocate’s office, which is an integral arm of the PUC. Since it is difficult to attract qualified employees willing to work for the state salary, some staffing positions remain vacant for years. The Legislature has given the PUC money for more positions, but the PUC is scrunched into such small office space it has no room for new employees.

This is a huge problem, especially since the energy industry is evolving so quickly. As Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, explained in a meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board, “you need to have resources to be able to hire consultants and pay competitive salaries so you can get sharp folks — attorneys, engineers, economists — people who can really make sure we’re heading in the right direction, and achieving our clean energy goals while keeping rates affordable.”

Considering what it’s up against — multi-billion-dollar businesses armed with legions of sharp and seasoned experts — being understaffed challenges the PUC’s efficiency as well as its efficacy. They’re outmanned and outgunned from the get-go.

Ironically, the commission could better afford to beef up its staff and resolve its office situation if it were allowed to keep more of its revenues. Routinely, however, about half of the PUC’s revenues are siphoned off to fund unrelated projects in the general fund.

Last year, then-Sen. David Ige proposed a bill — it died — that would have helped level the playing field by allowing the PUC to keep 10 times as much money in its special fund each year — $10 million instead of just $1 million.

In her testimony, then-Chair Morita said that “the complexity and size of the Commission’s workload has drastically increased over the last few years … Increasing the PUC Special Fund would help support the PUC and the Consumer Advocate to fulfill their respective statutory duties during these challenging times.

Note that this was the PUC chair’s assessment of the commission’s crushing workload before word of the NextEra deal was public.

This year, in his budget proposal, now-Gov. Ige added three new positions to the PUC and about $4.5 million for fiscal 2016 and $1.6 million for fiscal 2017. That was in line with a promise he made in his State of the State address to give the PUC “the expertise and resources” it needs to effectively deal with such significant issues. In a press briefing last week he reiterated his support for the PUC and noted that new PUC chair Randy Iwase was proceeding with plans to beef up the agency.

But better yet would be to let the PUC keep the money that’s collected in the special fund and is supposed to be used for regulatory purposes.

If we don’t give the PUC the means to review everything we ask them to, we’re setting them — and Hawaii — up for a power failure.

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