Few transactions in Hawaii have gotten the public scrutiny that the proposed $4.3 billion acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Co. by NextEra Energy has and will continue to receive over the next few months.

And that’s exactly as it should be. Hawaii consumers already pay far more for their electricity than ratepayers in any other state. Any deal that has an impact on their future costs and the energy sources from which electricity arrives at their homes and businesses is one that must be understood down to every relevant detail.

Twenty-eight intervenors have had their say on the deal as initially proposed, as have Gov. David Ige and Hawaii Consumer Advocate Jeff Ono, most characterizing it with strong, sometimes blistering criticism.

In new filings last week with Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission, NextEra responded with more detail on the merger and 85 binding commitments that, among other things, “would accelerate the achievement of Hawaii’s goal of an affordable, 100 percent renewable energy future by 2045,” the company said in an Aug. 31 news release.

Maui PUC crowd

People crowd into an elementary school on Maui last week to participate in the state Public Utilities Commission’s first “public listening session.”

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Now the most important intervenors are having their say — the rate-paying members of the public. The PUC is conducting a series of seven “listening sessions” across the Hawaii islands, a process that began last Friday in Maui. Despite that session having been inexplicably scheduled on the first evening of Labor Day weekend, more than 200 people showed up and offered three hours of heavily critical input on the proposed merger.

A second session followed on Lanai on Saturday, and others will play out over the coming weeks, with the final meeting scheduled for Oct. 27 on Oahu. Formal PUC hearings will follow beginning on Nov. 30, with arguments and evidence presented by both supporters and opponents of the deal. A final decision is expected from the commission by next June.

The commission is expected to be especially sensitive to NextEra’s commitment to the groundbreaking energy goal that Hawaii’s Legislature set last spring — 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by the year 2045. If there was any doubt that the goal was more substantial than symbolic, Gov. Ige laid it to rest in July when he announced his opposition to the merger, describing NextEra’s position on renewables as “vague and noncommital, to say the least.”

NextEra President Eric Gleason. 4 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

NextEra leaders pushed back hard against that perception in an editorial board discussion last week at Civil Beat.

“We disagree with what the governor said,” NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason said. “We think that’s a mischaracterization of where we are. We are 100 percent committed to the renewable energy goal.”

In addition to making that point over and again, Gleason and colleagues are trying to convince people around the state that NextEra would bring a halt to Hawaii’s rising electric bills, with an estimated savings of at least $400 per ratepayer over the next five years. The doesn’t translate into very much per household, but for consumers watching their energy bills soar during a stifling summer, any savings is better than the current reality.

“No one can assure you your bills are coming down. They’re pegged to the price of oil, and no one knows what the price of oil is going to be. So long as Hawaii is hooked on oil, no one knows what your bill is going to be next month,” said Gleason, pointing out that breaking the oil addiction and bringing greater stability to Hawaii electric rates is “part of the beauty of the renewables commitment.”

“So when we talk about cost savings, we can’t promise bills going down,” he added. “But we are highly confident that whatever your prices are going to be two years from now, they’re going to be less with NextEra.”

NextEra is further offering reassurances that its Hawaii presence would be locally managed, should the merger be approved. While the company intends to bring in “four or five” senior leaders from its mainland operations in Florida, Gleason says it would fill other positions locally.

“So when we talk about costs savings, we can’t promise bills going down. But we are highly confident that whatever your prices are going to be two years from now, they’re going to be less with NextEra.” — NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason

While NextEra’s commitment to renewables, addressing rising consumer costs and running a utility that meets a strong definition of local are the current headlines of the deal, the devil, as is often said, is in the details. And as Civil Beat’s Eric Pape reported Tuesday, they are legion in a deal of this size, beginning with NextEra’s list of 85 commitments.

It’s easy to get lost in the endless data, in part because we often lack sufficient context to allow for a meaningful determination of what is laudable and what’s not.  When NextEra commits to consumer savings of nearly $465 million over the next five years, for instance, is that a good deal for Hawaii ratepayers or should we reasonably expect more?

NextEra also commits to an accelerated deployment of smart meters and accompanying time-of-use rate options and smart grid technology, giving consumers more insight and control over their bills and the company a better ability to manage the state’s electricity use. But these are measures HECO already planned and that are already common on the mainland, just on a faster timetable.

The bottom line, then, is that even with the scrutiny this deal has already received, it demands more.

The PUC has the supremely difficult challenge of not only hearing and prioritizing the public’s concerns, but separating legitimate issues from political positioning. Other energy concerns and business interests are working hard to sway public opinion this way or that on the merger, and the PUC needs to make a decision based exclusively on the best interests of the public.

This is a critical moment for our state; whatever happens with our electric utility will affect us all now and for generations to come. We have one chance to get it right. Let’s make the most of it.

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