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More than 40 state and county lawmakers united Thursday in a commitment to explore the potential of public utilities in Hawaii.
Their announcement comes as the Public Utilities Commission considers approving the proposed $4.3 billion sale of Hawaiian Electric Industries to Florida-based NextEra Energy.
HEI owns Hawaiian Electric Co. on Oahu; Maui Electric Co., which serves Maui, Lanai and Molokai; and Hawaii Electric Light Co. on the Big Island. Kauai, the only county now not powered by an HEI subsidiary, gets its energy from Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.
“Public utilities don’t need higher rates to make profits for shareholders, and as a result they tend to have significantly lower rates than for-profit utilities across the country,” state Rep. Chris Lee, who heads the House Energy and Environment Committee said at a news conference in the Capitol.
He was flanked by 20 other lawmakers who support looking at fundamentally changing the monopoly for-profit utility model that has served Hawaii for the past 100 years.
Among the supporters was Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin, who said the county will be the biggest consumer of electricity in the state, even surpassing the military. Council members Ikaika Anderson and Kymberly Pine joined him.
House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang, along with fellow Republican Rep. Cynthia Thielen, also said the public utility option needs to be explored.
“As Republicans and Democrats, we have differences,” Fukumoto said. “But we can all agree that the skyrocketing cost of electricity is detrimental to local familites. Until NextEra provides a framework for customer savings, it would be irresponsible not to explore options like co-ops and other alternatives.”
NextEra has said the merger deal would result in nearly $1 billion in savings, with $500 million of that benefitting the state economy and $465 million in customer savings. But company officials have said with the volatility of oil they can’t guarantee that customer bills will drop from where they’re at today, among the highest rates in the country.
Big Island and Maui had already been talking about peeling away from HEI and each creating their own public utilities, similar to Kauai.
Martin authored a resolution in July, which the council will be considering soon, that calls on Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration to examine the potential of Oahu creating a utility co-op.
Lee said the Legislature has the sole rights to dispense the utility franchise. He sees the lawmakers as critical in setting direction for the utility, whether it’s a public model or for-profit.
Earlier this year, the state passed a law that sets a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“Is there a possibility for a better path forward? That’s the bottom line,” Lee said, especially if it can save residents a lot more money in the long run.
The next step, he said, is finding an independent third party to do a legal and financial analysis of a public utility option.
Here’s the full list of lawmakers who support looking into the public option: