The finish line is in sight.
Following 21 days of testimony, questioning and cross-examination, the state’s top energy regulator said evidentiary hearings that will help the Public Utilities Commission decide whether or not NextEra Energy can purchase Hawaiian Electric Industries are nearly complete.
In the coming months, the commission is expected to decide the fate of a $4.3 billion deal announced at the end of 2014 that could place Hawaii’s main power company in the hands of a much larger corporation based in Florida.
Following a two-and-a-half-week break since the previous phase of hearings, PUC Chair Randy Iwase said at the end of Monday’s session that he expects the hearings to finish up within the next 24 hours.
After that, he said the various intervening parties will likely be given 30 days to submit their final briefs — although the commission is open to alterations to that process, as long as they are proposed by noon Tuesday.
Last year, the commission granted intervening status in the process to more than two-dozen outside parties. That status allowed an array of companies, government administrative bodies, nonprofits and other entities to bring forward expert testimony and cross-examine witnesses for Hawaiian Electric and NextEra.
“We allowed a whole lot of intervenors,” said Iwase, adding that the PUC wants to give them all the chance to complete their final written arguments.
After all briefs are submitted by the intervenors, the Consumer Advocate, NextEra and Hawaiian Electric, the three members of the PUC will work on their final decision.
It remains unclear exactly when that will come down.
People familiar with such regulatory processes say that this one has been long. Several dozen witnesses have been called to testify amid sometime contentious cross-examinations, while a few of the exchanges have carried a decidedly local flavor.
NextEra’s representatives in the islands have cited the lengthy process. By their count, they have filed more than 110,000 pages of responses to 6,000 questions over a period that has spanned more than a year — beginning well before the start of the formal hearings at the end of November.
What remains is a fundamental question: Does the proposed deal offer enough benefits to be in the public interest?
Earlier in the day Rick Reed, who testified on behalf of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, expressed his concern that if NextEra comes to dominate the solar industry in the islands, it wouldn’t be helpful to efforts to serve Hawaii’s residents.
On the flip side, he suggested that if the balance of power tips too far toward the solar industry then that too could have negative consequences. “One to the exclusion of the other is not in the public interest,” Reed said.
Instead, he suggested, solar providers and the utility need to constructively co-exist.
Questioned about subsidies for renewables, which remain substantial, Reed said that no subsidy should continue forever but that they can be suitable until there is a “completely level playing field.”
Maui County Managing Director Keith Regan was cross-examined on Maui’s exploration of an alternative ownership model to satisfy its residents’ energy needs.
Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa has made clear that his county wants to continue to advance toward its 100 percent renewable energy goals, Regan said, so the county is looking at various possibilities, including the creation of a municipal electric cooperative.
Efforts thus far, Regan said, constitute a “first step” toward learning more. “We’re considering what our next steps are.”
The idea, at least theoretically, involves the possible replacement of the Maui Electric Co, although Regan acknowledged that he is unaware of any negotiations to purchase MECO.