- Special Projects
A red-eyed snake slithers over the shoulders of a shadowy figure dressed in a black suit with ghoulish, glowing white eyes.
He holds up a stack of hundred-dollar bills as dark smoke billows around him, hiding the happy couple and their two boys who are standing in the background of the island setting.
“When someone says one thing, but does another — that’s just a lie,” a female narrator says as the music intensifies.
This isn’t a scene from a Halloween movie. It’s an ad that The Alliance for Solar Choice, an industry group representing rooftop solar interests around the country, has been running online in opposition to the proposed $4.3 billion purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries by NextEra Energy.
NextEra and HEI, whose three subsidiaries power Oahu, Big Island and Maui County, have similarly tried to sway public opinion on the merger through advertising. They’ve run spots on the radio, TV, online and in print — although considerably more positive in tone. (See them here.)
The proposed sale of Hawaii’s electric company to a giant energy firm based in Florida has played out publicly since the deal was announced last December. At times, it’s felt more like an election campaign than an agreement between two utilities that must clear regulatory hurdles, not win a majority of voters’ hearts.
With the state’s energy future on the line, in many ways the stakes are higher than for an election.
Hawaii residents and businesses pay roughly triple the national average for electricity. The state is working to wean itself off imported oil.
The hope is a cleaner energy future will also be a cheaper one that could provide relief to islanders struggling to make ends meet in a state with such a high cost of living. But there’s intense debate over how to get there, including whether liquefied natural gas should be used as a bridge fuel and if NextEra is better suited than Hawaiian Electric to make the transformation happen.
Using ads and other means of persuasion to convince Hawaii residents that the deal is in their best interest — or not — is a way to spur the public to get involved in the process. Only instead of motivating them to wave campaign signs on street corners and get to the polls on Election Day, it’s about prompting them to put pressure on the decision-makers, which in this case is the state’s three-member Public Utilities Commission.
Political analyst Neal Milner said there’s no mistaking the similarities between the merger process and an election.
“To me, what’s different between this and a political campaign is there aren’t any real live flesh-and-blood people to be on a platform in favor of NextEra,” Milner said.
HEI and NextEra Energy have a lot on the line — the latter could be subject to a $90 million termination fee to be paid to Hawaiian Electric if the merger is rejected. The same goes for more than two dozen intervenors in the case, particularly the companies and nonprofits representing rooftop solar, an industry that has thrived in Hawaii over the past decade and stands to gain more business thanks to the state’s goal of becoming completely powered by renewable energy within the next 30 years.
Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent by the state and the parties involved in the docket on everything from attorneys and financial consultants to political advisers and outside experts.
“In any transaction like this, there’s a lot of noise.” — Rob Gould, NextEra Energy spokesman
Unlike in an election campaign, the electric companies, TASC and other parties in the docket don’t have to disclose how much they are spending on ads and other efforts to mold public opinion.
Rob Gould, speaking on behalf of NextEra and HEI, said as a matter of practice, “We never speak to specifics about our advertising budget.”
He also declined to say how many ads the companies have produced or the frequency in which they are running. He did note that the ads are paid for by shareholders, not customers — a point also made in the ads themselves.
On the website HEI and NextEra set up to disseminate information about the proposed merger, they’ve posted one of their radio ads, one full-page print ad and four video ads.
“In any transaction like this, there’s a lot of noise,” Gould said. “What we’re trying to do is take our message directly to those who will be most impacted by the decision going forward.”
Robert Harris, TASC’s Hawaii-based spokesman and Sunrun’s public policy director, said it’s generally TASC policy to be transparent about creating ads and labelling them under its name, but not to publicize the amount spent.
“The main intent has been to raise awareness and to start a dialogue,” he said, adding that they were created relatively early in the docket process when people were less familiar with NextEra.
Both animated ads clearly indicate TASC is behind them. In the one with the snake, TASC is the only group mentioned. In the other, which is less dark but similarly features animals portraying NextEra, the ad notes that it is paid for by TASC but is for KULOLO, a group supporting the public acquisition of the Hawaiian electric utilities.
There’s been increasing talk on Maui, Big Island and Oahu of customers forming their own cooperative, like Kauai did 12 years ago, and buying the utility.
If NextEra and HEI were running on the Republican ticket and the solar companies had the Democratic nomination — or vice versa — then the co-op supporters would be a Green Party candidate that has a long shot at winning but can raise public interest in alternative solutions.
Gov. David Ige came out against the merger in July, and his administration renewed its opposition last week despite NextEra adding more than 50 new commitments aimed at trying to curry public favor, like maintaining current levels of charitable giving and honoring existing union contracts.
Ige appointed Randy Iwase as PUC chair in January. The other two members on the commission were picked by Ige’s predecessor, former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, whom Iwase supported in the Democratic primary last August.
Iwase, who served for years as a state senator and in other high-profile government posts, is familiar with working amid a lot of political raucousness. But he said he’s not letting that take his focus off the docket.
“We have to be insulated from that and deal with the evidence and testimony that is presented to the commission,” Iwase said.
The PUC is finishing up its listening sessions this month on each island and preparing for the upcoming quasi-judicial evidentiary hearing.
The listening sessions have at times looked like town-hall talks. But instead of candidates at the front of the room fielding questions and deflecting criticism, it’s Iwase and Commissioners Mike Champley and Lorraine Akiba just listening and taking notes.
The evidentiary hearing, a trial-like process that starts Nov. 30 at Blaisdell Arena, is the forum in which the PUC will hear the case for and against the merger. If this were an election, it’d be the big televised debate between the Republican and Democratic nominees.
“The main intent has been to raise awareness and to start a dialogue.” — Robert Harris, TASC spokesman
When that process wraps up, which could take weeks, the PUC will take everything it heard under advisement and eventually make a decision on the merger, possibly by June.
Gould said the listening sessions, which started in early September and wrap up Oct. 27 on Oahu, have included “a lot of misinformation.” He said the ads are a way of trying to separate fact from fiction.
“People are going to hear what they hear and they’ll believe what they believe,” he said.
Solar industry groups, not surprisingly, feel the same way about NextEra and HEI. They don’t believe the merger will result in the $1 billion in customer savings and benefits to the economy that the companies have touted, or that it will help Hawaii reach its 100 percent renewable goal faster.
NextEra is 10 times the size of HEI, which company officials say means a wealth of expertise and increased buying power due to better credit ratings. They often paint NextEra as a global leader in wind and solar energy, a point the solar industry has disputed in its ads.
In its 2015 company profile, NextEra says its energy portfolio is comprised of 68 percent natural gas, 23 percent nuclear, 5 percent purchased power, 4 percent coal and less than 1 percent oil/solar.
The ads are just part of the unfolding campaign. The electric companies have hired experienced political advisers as consultants, including Jennifer Sabas, who was the late Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye’s longtime aide.
What those consultants are costing — and what services they’re providing, specifically — is harder to pin down.
The solar groups were able to pry out some of the dollar figures for how much NextEra and HEI have spent on outside attorneys and consultants. But a renewed effort that would have disclosed how much Sabas is expected to earn was rejected last week.
Responding Sept. 3 to an information request in the docket from TASC, NextEra and HEI provided a breakout of how much money they were paying three dozen groups.
One of those was Kaimana Hila, a nonprofit formed by Sabas. But under the amount paid, they listed $0 as of July 31.
TASC followed up again Sept. 30, asking how much money is currently owed to all third parties listed as consultants, “including but not limited to those third parties with a $0 amount.” There were initially nine entities listed as not having been paid yet.
This time, attorneys for NextEra and HEI objected to the question outright. They said it was beyond the scope of the proceeding, and pointed at the PUC’s own words of caution last month against the intervening parties asking for information that’s not relevant in the case.
Nonetheless, the companies provided an updated amount of how much they’ve paid their consultants, advisers, attorneys and other third parties through Aug. 31. They gave a breakout of 34 firms receiving a combined $23.5 million. Notably absent was Kaimana Hila, which evidently has still not been paid.
The numerous exchanges that have played out in the docket process among the electric companies, intervenors and the Consumer Advocate — often accompanied by statements in the media underscoring high points or downplaying low ones — are a lot like following candidates on the campaign trail in which barbs are fired daily in an atmosphere of spin control.
NextEra, HEI and the intervenors push their propaganda in part to incite the public to tell the PUC that the deal should be approved or rejected. They are hesitant to say that, though, in part because of limits the PUC has placed on their ability to speak during the public listening sessions or get members of the public to do so on their behalf.
The PUC specifically told the intervenors and applicants in the docket that the listening sessions are “intended to provide an opportunity for members of the broader public, who are not Parties to the proceeding, to offer their views, opinions, and concerns for the commission to consider as part of its overall analysis.”
TASC’s snake video has had more than 13,400 views since it was uploaded to YouTube on Aug. 19, two weeks before the PUC’s first listening session on Maui. And NextEra’s video and print messages during the same period have reached many times that through the significantly broader audiences of Honolulu’s only daily newspaper and TV stations.
Image is everything, as Canon ads used to profess. That’s an issue NextEra faces, and a point that solar groups have honed in on.
“It still seems like they haven’t gotten past the outsiders’ stigma that you start with,” Milner said, referring to Hawaii’s cautious approach to people coming from the mainland.
In one of its ads, TASC reminds viewers of the fates of longtime local businesses such as Meadow Gold, Liberty House and Aloha Airlines, which have been bought out by out-of-staters or shut down entirely.
And when it portrays NextEra as an evil, money-hungry man in a suit who’s put up a front as a smiling white utility worker, the family in the background is of Asian ancestry, just like two-thirds of Hawaii’s population.
After hiring consultants like Sabas and others who know how to navigate Hawaii politics, NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason started using Hawaiian phrases in some of the company’s filings with the PUC and making other efforts to appear more local.
Gleason lives in Honolulu now, but as the face of NextEra must still overcome his whiteness and the fact that he’s from the mainland. It’s a tough chore, even for white people who have lived in the islands for decades, as Civil Beat columnist Denby Fawcett recently explained.
Milner said he doesn’t fault NextEra for struggling to shake its outsider status.
“I’m not even blaming them,” he said. “I don’t know where you’d turn to do that.”
One place to at least try building a groundswell of support would be social media, which Milner points out NextEra and HEI have been particularly bad at.
TASC, co-op supporters and solar companies have leveraged Facebook and Twitter to get their message out in frequent status updates and calls to action, like attending the PUC’s listening sessions to air opinions.
“We have to be insulated from that and deal with the evidence and testimony that is presented to the commission.” — Randy Iwase, PUC chair
Harris described the public interest as “intense,” and said that “discussing these things with the public certainly has echoes of a campaign or election.”
He said TASC wants to do what it can to stir engagement and ensure the public is thinking about the proposed transaction at a high level.
Gould said the solar groups have their interests, and NextEra has its own. He said he truly believes the merger is in the best interest of the public.
“There’s no question that there’s great interest in it, and there’s a lot of different perspectives about it,” Gould said. “Electricity hits everybody.”
Ultimately, however, only three ballots will be cast.