- Special Projects
Chad Blair: Aloha everybody and welcome to another installment of the Pod Squad. Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat.
Joining me today is an editor with Civil Beat, Eric Pape, and he’s going to join us to talk about his new series on Hawaiian Electric Company called “Electric Dreams.” Eric can you hear me OK?
Eric Pape: Yeah, I can you hear you just fine Chad.
Blair: Eric is in Palo Alto in California at Stanford. You’re there for a fellowship reunion is that right?
Pape: Yeah it’s a gathering of former journalism fellows here.
Blair: Well say hello to Denby Fawcett for me.
Pape: I will.
Blair: You know, Eric, this series is amazing. I’m not going to go into much detail and although I do encourage our all readers to to read the series on the history of Hawaiian Electric dating back to before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. What I’m most fascinated in as a fellow writer and researcher, how did you do this? How did you pull this thing off? It seems like it must’ve taken all sorts of time and energy to pull it together.
Pape: Yeah I mean this is this is what we call a deep dive. There’s a lot of the fun eras. We’re talking about a 125-year history of the company. We really wanted to not just have it be a sort of encyclopedic chronology. We wanted to be dynamic, to pull at the threads that are really relevant right now given the many challenges and questions in the air around electricity in Hawaii.
Blair: And of course the importance of Hawaiian Electric, as the series makes clear, it parallels — it is in fact the history of modern Hawaii. And that’s a major point to illustrate just how powerful and how influential the company is.
Pape: It’s actually pretty fascinating to see not just the articles related to Hawaiian Electric in the early early days, I mean in the late 19th century early 20th century, but also just to see what was going on around it. The side article has all kinds of fascinating stuff there.
Blair: Well give me just a taste of that because a lot of it comes off in the series and my sense was it was like, wow, in a lot of ways the more things change the more things are the same. It’s still people still dealing with problems and challenges, but in many ways I felt like I could have been right there in 1890 or 1900 or 1905. What was your sense? Did you feel like it took you back in time?
Pape: Yeah. I think to do a project like this you have to immerse yourself in the subject matter and get a sense of the feel of the time. So you can’t talk about the 1910s without talking World War I and how it was shaping things. And you stumble across information in other documentation dealing with Hawaii Gas and Hawaiian Electric sort of competing and bickering with each other in 1910, 1912, 1913, which led to the creation of the Public Utilities Commission that regulates Hawaiian Electric.
So there were a lot of different threads that echo now. The whole idea of the beginning of electricity in Hawaii and who was going to run it. It was really a startup venture. There was huge potential and huge risk. So one of the main things that we tried to get out was these threads that we can really relate to now in surprising ways because it feels like ancient history and in fact it echoes now and it’s very relevant, especially with NextEra trying to take over Hawaiian Electric.
Blair: And we’ll talk about that in just a second.
You know, by the way, one of the things I love the most is the archival photos that are in the series and then Cory Lum our photographer updated them. The one that really gets me is the one of the Moana Surfrider as we call it, that first main hotel in Waikiki. And to use this little scroll device, you see it back in 1905 or something, and then it comes up to the present day. In the old days it’s the only building there and you can see Diamond Head. Today it’s obscured practically by all these all high rises and it makes me really long for the Waikiki of old.
Pape: So there is this element that runs through the series of going back through and looking at the development of Hawaii. I mean you can decipher some of the not-great decisions that were made and then you can decipher for some of what people call progress that some people will like and some people won’t. But yeah, that particular hotel, it was in a rural space near the ocean. It’s fascinating to see what’s there now. And going all around Honolulu, which develops sort of in concert with Hawaiian Electric and also with the with the electric street cars that there used to be, which for a time where electric-powered, I mean that’s been just fascinating for me and I hope it comes across in the stories that are already out and in the follow-up pieces that are coming.
Blair: You also talk to a lot of important, interesting people around town, people involved in all sorts of things. Many of them older folks that have been around and have a bit of a long view. How open were they to talking to you about the history of Hawaiian Electric given its power and its influence? Did you feel like they kind of got into it, they enjoyed talking about Hawaiian Electric?
Pape: Yeah, people love talking about this. I mean for retirees, I talked to people who — oldest person I spoke with was 86 years old, a 43-year employee of Hawaiian Electric who retired in 1996, a guy named Allan Lloyd, he just loves talking about this stuff because he’s an 86-year-old and I’m guessing the grandkids aren’t exactly dying to talk about the electric history of Hawaii because they’re not sure why that would be interesting and yet the stories he has are fascinating and, you know, he lights up as he talks about it so there are people like him.
I spoke with a number of former governors, the people in electricity power, a lot of people who have worked for HECO and who still do and actually people in other areas in the world of business who are also in some cases retired, and those people love to have all of their wisdom and knowledge and experiences become relevant again, and the thing is it’s sort of sad that they’re not tapped into more because they do have so much to share and if you look at it the right way it’s incredibly relevant to the challenges today, from the NextEra bid to 100 percent renewable goals that Hawaii has for its electricity
Blair: Right, 100 percent by 2045. Just a couple more questions for you. Did you work closely with Hawaiian Electric on this series?
Pape: Work closely, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but they were certainly very helpful and open and I wasn’t certain that was going to be the case, but they may have helped us to find some some photos from their archives. They provided some unexpected documents from different eras, which of course would mean that I would have to, for example, read through hundreds of pages of a PSC from 1939, but from an investigative point of view, yeah the were they were generally very, very, very open to this.
I think and hope that they understand that this is Hawaii’s history. It’s not just for the company and it’s not just for the company to shape. The series works to be fair to them without any doubt and to be fair to history more than anything.
Blair: You know as you and I are speaking, the decision by the PUC on the NextEra Energy merger deal for Hawaiian Electric is pending and it’s possible that it will come out by the time this podcast airs, it’s possible that it will not yet come out, but you’ve been following that issue very carefully as well. You attended a lot of those hearings, just put us in a little context of vis-a-vis your series — how significant this development is, whether it goes through or not.
Pape: So there’s two sides to that. One is there’s a lot of talk about the localness of Hawaiian Electric and how NextEra is this faraway company. The truth is, as people will see later in the series, Hawaiian Electric is not a locally owned company anymore and it has been decreasingly so for years. I should say that it is somewhat, but it has been decreasingly so for about 50 years since it was put on the New York Stock Exchange. That said, it does have people who are local, who understand Hawaii and who are making decisions.
In terms of the importance of this decision, yeah this is a very, very significant thing. It’s not the first epic change in the 125-year history of the company, but this is one of those key moments and the decisions that will be made are likely to have an impact on Hawaii for the next decade if not longer.
We see that when we look at the old power plants that are in the coming section that were built in some cases in the 1930s and 1950s and power units from the 1940s and we’re still using. So history sticks around on this topic. As David Heenan said to me, he’s the former head of the University of Hawaii School of Business, he said Hawaii often only gets to build big infrastructure things once, it makes these big investments and has a tough decision, and then it’s kind of stuck with that so it really highlights the importance of making the right choice.
Blair: And the whole reason for doing this series, in fact, is this NextEra proposal.
Pape: The reason for doing this series is that this company, possibly the most significant strategic company in Hawaii’s modern history, is faced with great change. Whether the deal goes through or not, it’s going to change because it has to and so it was an opportunity to take a look and figure out what this company means to Hawaii, where we might have outdated perceptions, where history might give us a new view of the present, kind of refresh us and remind us of certain things. So yeah, that was the trigger but there was so much more to it.
Blair: Final question for you. As we speak the fourth installment of the series is to run and that brings us up to the Great Depression and World War II. How many more installments do we have to look forward to?
Pape: So we’re about halfway through and there’s some pretty fascinating stuff coming up. There are fresh ways to look at history with modern audience eyes, and history can offer us a fresh perspective on things now, so that’s really the goal of the series and hopefully we will be able to do that.
Blair: Terrific, we look forward to reading it.
Eric Pape, editor with Civil Beat, we wish you safe travels there in California and wherever else you may be going. And thank you again for joining us today.
Pape: Always a pleasure Chad.
Blair: So you can visit us as always at www.civilbeat.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat’s Pod Squad, take care and aloha.