The battle for public opinion amped up this week as state regulators entered the trial-like portion of their review of the proposed $4.3 billion sale of Hawaiian Electric Industries to Florida-based NextEra Energy.
The three-member Hawaii Public Utilities Commission will ultimately decide whether to approve the deal, but that hasn’t stopped external efforts to influence the outcome.
Polling, advertising and news releases have all been deployed to sway popular opinion in this historic merger case, leaving the public to sort through an often biased barrage of communication.
The Alliance for Solar Choice, a group representing rooftop solar interests in Hawaii and on the mainland, released a poll Tuesday the group said showed most Hawaii residents oppose the merger, especially when told they could lose local control of their utility company.
The timing was no coincidence. The PUC was holding its second day of the evidentiary hearing at Blaisdell Center.
The quasi-judicial process, set to run through December, provides an opportunity for the utility companies and more than 20 intervening parties to cross-examine expert witnesses and present their case in a way that extends beyond the thousands of pages that have been filed with the commission over the past year.
While HECO President Alan Oshima was getting grilled by attorneys during the hearing, TASC was touting the numbers from the November poll it commissioned.
“An overwhelming majority of Hawaii residents believe the takeover of Hawaiian Electric is not in their interests,” Robert Harris, director of public policy for Sunrun, said in a press release. “Hawaii wants a locally controlled utility that is responsive to customer needs and encourages the installation of rooftop solar systems.”
But some polling experts and political analysts questioned the validity of the poll, which was conducted by Honolulu-based SMS and paid for by Sunrun, a residential solar company based in San Francisco.
University of Hawaii political science professor emeritus Neal Milner said he is skeptical of any poll not coming from a neutral source.
“The questions are clearly loaded in a certain direction,” Milner said.
SMS Chairman Hersh Singer said TASC designed the questions and SMS did the field work, which used a household panel of 400 residents that was demographically representative of Hawaii as a whole. The margin of error was 5 percent.
It was the second time in two weeks TASC announced results of the poll.
Earlier, TASC used the poll to attack the PUC and Gov. David Ige for supporting the agency’s October decision to cap the popular net energy metering program that let residents export energy from their photovoltaic systems back to the grid. TASC has filed a lawsuit challenging the PUC’s decision.
“The public overwhelmingly supports rooftop solar and believes that Hawaii is moving in the wrong direction on energy policy, but policy makers are not listening,” Bryan Miller, president of TASC, said in a press release. “This poll shows that Governor Ige and the Commission are ignoring the voices of their constituents.”
Customers were credited at the full retail rate for the solar energy they produced on their rooftops, which virtually eliminated their electric bills. But the commission said it’s hard for the grid to handle much more of this intermittent power source and that renewable energy savings should benefit all customers, not just those who can afford a PV system.
TASC asked the respondents in the poll what their opinion was of Ige. Thirty-seven percent had a favorable rating and 36 percent had an unfavorable opinion. In contrast, a November poll by Morning Consult, a digital politics and policy online site, found 52 percent approved of the job Ige has done since taking office last December.
The next question in the TASC poll asked what people thought of Ige if they knew he appoints the members of the PUC and had supported its decision to eliminate net metering. His ratings plummeted: 16 percent had a favorable opinion and 70 percent thought unfavorably.
Harris said polling is critical to find out where people stand on issues.
“The PUC’s instruction is to act in the public interest. What better reflection of what the public wants?” — Robert Harris, TASC
“It’s difficult to craft a question that doesn’t sound biased,” he said.
As an example, Harris pointed at a question aimed at finding out what people think of the PUC in light of its decision to end net metering.
The question is set up to explain that the decision means “only 4,000 more homes on O’ahu will be able to install rooftop solar and export power back to the grid, and much fewer on the neighboring islands.”
Harris said TASC needed to translate the PUC’s decision in the question, which says only an additional 25 megawatts of rooftop solar will be allowed, so that people knew that roughly equates to 4,000 homes.
Seth Rosenthal is a consultant for Merriman River Group, which provides polling services including for Civil Beat. He said the TASC poll assumes too much knowledge on the part of the respondents about energy policy.
“It is important to define terms that aren’t a part of most people’s everyday experience or knowledge, otherwise, the poll will end up collecting people’s opinions about things that they don’t really understand,” he said.
George Bishop, a retired University of Cincinnati political science professor, echoed that sentiment in a column Monday in the New York Times.
“Pollsters often create an illusion of public opinion by asking respondents questions that are vaguely worded about topics on which the average citizen is poorly informed,” he said, referring to polls about federal policy issues like “budget deficit” and “foreign affairs.”
Bishop said poll respondents will answer questions when asked, regardless of how well they understand the issue.
“That’s how pollsters — unwittingly perhaps — manufacture the ‘will of the people,'” he said.
In another poll question, TASC asks whether the PUC should have ended net metering without holding a hearing or conducting an analysis of the costs and benefits of the program, which it describes as “the core policy that supports the growth of rooftop solar.” Seventy-four percent disagreed with the decision to end the program.
Harris said he understands the criticism of the poll, but that it’s really a question-by-question analysis.
“It is important to define terms that aren’t a part of most people’s everyday experience.” — Seth Rosenthal, polling consultant
With the NextEra approval rating questions, he said it’s quite straightforward.
First, respondents were asked if they’ve heard of the proposed purchase of Hawaiian Electric, which runs Hawaiian Electric Co. on Oahu; Maui Electric Co., which powers Maui, Lanai and Molokai; and Hawaii Electric and Light Co. Seventy-six percent said they had.
Then they were asked if they favored it: “NextEra Energy is a Florida-based company who has plans to purchase Hawaiian Electric Industries, including its subsidiary energy utilities: HECO, MECO, and HELCO. To what extent are you in favor of the purchase of Hawaiian Electric by NextEra Energy?”
The results found 21 percent strongly oppose, 30 percent somewhat oppose, 17 percent somewhat support, 5 percent strongly support, and 27 percent had no opinion.
Harris said the key finding was how public opinion of the merger has changed over the past six months.
When TASC asked the same question in a May poll, 12 percent strongly oppose, 16 percent somewhat oppose, 14 percent support, 5 percent strongly support, and 34 percent had no opinion.
Harris said he believes the polling should help inform decision-makers.
“The PUC’s instruction is to act in the public interest,” he said. “What better reflection of what the public wants? The public’s support of either rooftop solar or local control is highly illustrative and should influence the PUC.”
TASC is not the only group trying to shape public opinion to pressure the PUC.
State lawmakers organized a press conference outside Blaisdell Center on Monday, the first day of the PUC’s evidentiary hearing there, to argue that the deal should be rejected.
Reps. Chris Lee and Beth Fukumoto joined Stuart Coleman of Surfrider Foundation, economist and small business owner Ryan Akamine and Hawaii Gas general counsel Nathan Nelson to lambaste NextEra for planning to spend $30 billion on infrastructure while refusing to provide specific power supply plans until after the deal goes through.
Lee, who heads the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, has also worked to rally lawmakers in support of a plan to explore alternative utility business models, such as member-owned cooperatives.
NextEra spokesman Rob Gould said there is going to be a need for massive investment regardless of whether the merger is approved.
“The way Rep. Lee is characterizing the capital needs and customer impacts just simply don’t align with the reality of the situation of what’s needed to achieve a 100 percent renewable energy future by 2045,” he said.
Earlier Monday, NextEra and HEI pumped out positive messages through a public relations firm they hired. Bennett Group sent out a news release that listed 25 organizations and companies that now support the merger, ranging from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
The release included comments from Oshima and NextEra President Eric Gleason about how the acquisition would lower customer bills and help the state kick its oil addiction faster.
The utility companies have taken out full-page ads in the newspaper and ran spots on TV casting the merger in a glowing light, particularly when it comes to solar.
Earlier this year, TASC, an intervening party in the merger case, ran online ads portraying NextEra as a money-driven villain that will cripple the solar industry.
The group contends NextEra’s principal subsidiary, Florida Power & Light, has fought to prevent rooftop solar from taking hold in the Sunshine State because fewer than 1 percent of customers there have a PV system.
NextEra has said that’s because electricity is already inexpensive in Florida so solar isn’t needed to lower costs as it is in Hawaii. NextEra officials have countered that solar companies are opposing the merger because they want electric rates to stay high in Hawaii so they can sell more PV systems.
Milner said when organizations lack support from political insiders, they turn to other methods to influence the public. He said he sees this happening not just with TASC’s ads and polling, but with NextEra’s own ads in support of the merger and steady stream of press releases.
PUC Chair Randy Iwase has said he is not letting outside influences like ads shape his opinion of the merger. A decision on the sale is expected next summer.
Read TASC’s November and May polls below.