State regulators have rejected two petitions filed by a broad coalition of environmental, community and solar energy groups seeking a delay in their review of Florida-based NextEra Energy’s purchase of Hawaiian Electric Co. for $4.3 billion, including debt.

But proponents of the petitions said the action left room for them to be reconsidered.

The petitions argue that the Public Utilities Commission needs to first rule on key cases before it that are expected to provide greater clarity and direction to both the utility’s plans for adopting more renewable energy sources and its future business model.

One of the petitions also argues that the acquisition of HECO, which owns the utilities on Oahu, the Big Island and in Maui County, should be opened up to other companies.

power lines (PF)

HECO power lines.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In rulings made public Tuesday, the PUC rejected the petitions on narrow statutory grounds, arguing that the petitioners were asking commissioners to engage in rulemaking when the unsettled dockets instead require them to act in their adjudicatory role. Specifically, the groups had asked the PUC to issue a written order that says before NextEra’s purchase of HECO is addressed, the commission would rule on the open dockets, including HECO’s long-term energy plans.

The PUC “finds that, because the dockets referenced by petitioners are both open and pending, rulemaking is not appropriate,” the commissioners wrote in their rulings. “Clearly, in these dockets, the commission is acting in its adjudicatory role.”

Robert Harris, a spokesman for the The Alliance for Solar Choice, said that the PUC ruling does not spell the end for the petitions. He said the PUC could still issue a “declaratory judgment” in favor of the petitioners, which would confirm that the pending cases needed to be settled first in order to gauge whether the NextEra purchase is in the public interest. Harris also noted that PUC Chair Randy Iwase suggested during a legislative confirmation hearing that major planning dockets before the PUC needed to be settled because they could have a bearing on the NextEra deal.

One of the petitions was filed by The Hawaii Solar Energy Association, Alliance for Solar Choice, Hawaii PV Coalition, Blue Planet Foundation and Hawaii Sierra Club.

The other, which also asked the commission to consider other business models and buyers for the utility, was filed by Life of the Land, Big Island Community Coalition, Puna Pono Alliance, Friends of Lanai, Community Alliance on Prisons, Ka Lei Maile Alii Hawaiian Civic Club and I Aloha Molokai.

The PUC rulings follow opinions issued by Hawaii Consumer Advocate Jeff Ono, who plays an important role in advising the commission on consumer interests, that urged the PUC to reject the petitions.

Ono called the petitions “vague and ambiguous” and said that they would contribute to a regulatory backlog. He also said that a delay in reviewing the deal could lead to “lost opportunities for consumers.”

NextEra, a heavily capitalized company with expertise in transmission lines and large wind and solar projects, has argued that it could operate the electric utilities more efficiently and help drive down electricity rates.

The NextEra deal has sparked concern among Hawaii’s solar companies, in particular, who cite the company’s track record of stymying the adoption of rooftop solar in Florida.

NextEra’s purchase of HECO requires the approval of the PUC, as well as federal regulatory agencies and shareholders. Company officials are hoping the deal will close by the end of the year.

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