KAHULUI, MAUI — Hawaiian Electric Co. President Alan Oshima and NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason opened the 2015 Maui Energy Conference on Wednesday with platitudes about the potential benefits of their pending $4.3 billion merger.
They endeavored to say all the right things, emphasizing the importance of the customer, addressing the challenges of getting off oil, and recognizing the need for the Florida-based company to remain humble and respectful in Hawaii if the sale goes through as expected.
“We don’t come here thinking we have all the answers,” Gleason said. “We see a very exciting opportunity for a clean energy company.”
Gleason noted how NextEra is on board with HECO’s goal of reaching 65 percent renewable energy, tripling distributed solar and lowering electric bills by 20 percent within the next 15 years.
“All of the parties are so aligned to reach a common goal,” Oshima said.
But all the promises and positivity were far from enough to appease the next panels that took the stage at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
Jonathan Koehn, the regional sustainability coordinator for Boulder, led an hour-long discussion about the trend toward “democratized” energy and decentralizing power from monopolistic companies like Hawaiian Electric Industries, which owns HECO, Maui Electric Co. and Hawaiian Electric and Light Co. on the Big Island.
John Farrell, director of the Democratic Energy Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, and David Freeman, a consultant with decades of experience in the utility industry, elicited laughs and applause talking about an “energy revolution.”
There is a “leverage opportunity” in the pending sale of HEI to NextEra that should be taken advantage of to demand 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and other concessions from the utility, Farrell said.
He highlighted how the two companies talk about how much they want to help Hawaii but fail to acknowledge that the deal is really about business. It’s about making money for executives and shareholders — not serving ratepayers’ best interests.
“Let’s make sure there’s a similar public benefit,” Farrell said.
Freeman underscored how much bigger the energy problem is than lowering electric bills, worrying about intermittent power and fretting over how things might change if a huge Florida company takes over one of Hawaii’s oldest local businesses.
“We’ve got to get after it as though our lives depend upon it because they do,” he said, noting how climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions threatens to destroy the planet.
Freeman faulted the companies for planning to shift from oil to liquefied natural gas to help Hawaii transition to a clean-energy future.
“The very idea of replacing oil with LNG, it’s just like switching from Camels to Lucky Strikes,” he said. “That is a bridge to hell — climate hell.”
Oshima said LNG gives Hawaii a stable energy platform that’s a better option than investing in old power plants.
Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, likened LNG to a “multi-kilaton bomb sitting in your living room.”
“We are staring catastrophe in the face,” she said. “Climate change is upon us. It will not be kind to the islands. It will not be kind to anywhere.”
Lovins was part of a panel that focused on the customer of the 21st century and how their needs and expectations have changed.
“We can solve all these problems if we stop talking about it,” she said.
The Legislature is working on bills this session to facilitate the shift to LNG as a bridge. Few lawmakers have spoken out against the plan.
Freeman explained how moving more toward renewables and decentralizing the utility breaks up its political strength and in turn the monopoly. Hawaiian Electric and NextEra would have less influence over decisions made by elected officials if this happened.
Curtis said it may be that the merger makes sense for Oahu, but not Maui or Big Island. (Kauai is independent, getting its power from Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.)
Discussions frequently returned to the notion of how hard it is to anticipate the future, a point Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa highlighted in his opening remarks.
Oil was $100 a barrel this time last year, he said, and no one would have guessed it was going to be half that now. The mayor said if people mentioned NextEra at the conference in 2014, few would have known what it was and no one would have guessed Hawaiian Electric might merge with the company.
Arakawa said Maui County’s goal is still to get to 100 percent renewable energy and he noted a few archipelagos around the world that have been able to do so.
The mayor said if Hawaii is to do energy differently, there has to be a discussion about deregulation.
“Before you put a plan into action or even start coming up with a plan, we have to have the discussion,” Arakawa said. “This is the group that really needs to start that discussion — and right now.”
Diverse groups debated a wide range of energy issues in the first day of the conference, which goes through Friday. See what’s on tap for Thursday here.