KAHULUI, MAUI — More than 200 people filled an elementary school cafeteria Friday evening to take three-minute turns telling the state Public Utilities Commission what they think about the proposed $4.3 billion sale of Hawaiian Electric Industries to NextEra Energy.

The turnout in and of itself was significant, on such a balmy night and the beginning of the long Labor Day weekend. Plus, as PUC Chair Randy Iwase brought up more than once, the monthly free street festival was happening in nearby Wailuku.

But the seriousness of the matter at hand, the impacts of selling one of the oldest companies in Hawaii to an enormous energy firm based in Florida, was clearly not lost on the community.

Maui PUC crowd

Albert Perez, the executive director of Maui Tomorrow, Eric Gleason, president of NextEra Energy Hawaii, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa and others listen during the state Public Utilities Commission’s first “public listening session” Friday evening at Lihikai Elementary School on Maui.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Most of those who testified during the nearly three-hour “public listening session,” as the PUC billed it, came out against the deal.

“It will inhibit the freedom that Hawaii has.”

“Local brothers will lose their jobs.”

“It’s a giant corporation that’s far, far, far away.”

But there were a significant number of supporters too, making the case that NextEra can bring more expertise in renewables, increased buying power and other ways to potentially save customers money.

HEI owns Maui Electric Co., which powers Maui, Lanai and Molokai; Hawaiian Electric Co., which serves Oahu; and Hawaii Electric Light Co., which serves the Big Island. MECO has approximately 70,000 of the HEI’s 450,000 customers statewide.

PUC listens Maui

Staff and members of the state Public Utilities Commission listen to testimony.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The listening session was the first of seven that the PUC plans to hold throughout the islands. The commissioners weren’t required to hold them but chose to so they could hear from the public about the proposed transaction.

“We want to hear from you,” Iwase said at the outset of the meeting. “That’s why we’re here.”

The commissioners did not respond to any questions, which Iwase said would be inappropriate because the case is pending. He and the other two commissioners, Lorraine Akiba and Mike Champley, just sat and listened, taking occasional notes.

Some of the intervenors, many of whom represent the solar industry, attended the hearing Friday evening. They weren’t allowed to address the commission, nor were NextEra or Hawaiian Electric, but everyone seemed to have someone there clearly hammering home the main points for whichever side they represented.

Marilyn Chapman PUC Maui

Longtime Maui resident Marilyn Chapman offers her support for the merger deal.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Marilyn Chapman, a longtime Maui resident, said she supports it the merger.

“Maui Electric has done a very good job on Maui managing the electricity needs during peak hours and after storms, etc.,” she said. “However, we have to move forward with upgrades to the electrical systems islandwide, and Maui Electric Co. does not have the experience or buying power to do all of this very quickly.”

“NextEra’s business is utilities and renewable energy,” she said. “They want to invest in Hawaii to further their commitment to renewable energy in North America. Not only do they have the experience and newest technology, but they also have the buying power to make it much more affordable to upgrade our electrical systems and enhance and upgrade the grids to enable all homeowners that want to utilize photovoltaic to do so.”

Kehau Filimoeatu PUC Maui

Lifelong Maui resident Kehau Filimoe’atu explains why she’s concerned about a huge mainland company buying Hawaiian Electric Industries.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Albert Perez, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, a group dedicated to supporting sustainable growth, opposed the deal.

“Maui’s people want a utility that recognizes that everyone has the right to capture energy from local sources,” he said. “The public interest is best served by a utility that encourages us to do so, and facilitates the integration of distributed energy sources as much as possible. We need a resilient energy system that is environmentally friendly.”

“We have the ability now to free ourselves from the vulnerabilities inherent in a traditional utility that is focused on central generation, distributed by poles and wires to dependent consumers,” he said. “Although Oahu may need until 2045 to get to 100 percent renewable energy, we think Maui is further along, and should have a target year of 2030.”

The state passed a law this summer setting a goal of becoming powered 100 percent by renewable energy by 2045. Maui was at 34 percent at the end of 2014, and MECO has since proposed buying electricity from two large solar projects that are pending before the PUC.

Rob Gould, NextEra VP Marketing and Communication Rob Gould. 4 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

NextEra spokesman Rob Gould, seen here during an editorial board meeting at Civil Beat, says he appreciates the public input part of the process.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

M.J. Duberstein, a former member of Maui Tomorrow’s board and retired director of research for the National Football League Players Association, said the merger would set Hawaii back 100 years.

“It’s an example of colonial capitalism,” he said, telling the commissioners that the public entrusts a “huge kuleana” to them.

“In these matters, we treat you as kupuna,” he said.

NextEra spokesman Rob Gould said after the hearing that he appreciated this part of the process.

“We certainly are encouraged that there were voices of support amidst those that have concerns,” he said. “At the end of the day, we believe this is a tremendous opportunity for Hawaiian Electric customers to realize lower bills while we can help accelerate 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.”

NextEra has been working hard to convince decision-makers and the public at large that it truly is committed to renewable energy after Gov. David Ige’s administration, Consumer Advocate Jeff Ono and others announced their opposition to the merger as currently proposed.

The companies on Monday added 54 binding commitments, bringing the total to date up to 85, including guarantees that resource plans will be updated within a year of the sale going through, the company won’t be resold for at least 10 years, and customers will have smart meters by the end of 2019 along with dynamic time-of-use pricing.

On Thursday, a group of more than 40 state and county lawmakers united in support of exploring a public utility option. That’s something Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, who quietly watched part of the PUC’s listening session from the back of the room, has continued to push forward.

The next listening session is Saturday morning on Lanai and the sessions wrap up Oct. 27 on Oahu.

Then the process, which started in January, gets decidedly more serious. As Iwase described it, the “trial-like evidentiary hearing” starts Nov. 30 at Blaisdell Arena.

That’s when lawyers representing the applicants, the Consumer Advocate and 28 intervening parties in the case will present evidence, argue facts and then await the commission’s decision, which is expected by June.

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