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Any Hawaii ratepayers wondering whether the Public Utilities Commission made the right decision earlier this year in rejecting NextEra Energy’s bid to purchase Hawaiian Electric Industries might have found recent news out of Florida particularly interesting.
The Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) reported last Tuesday that Florida’s two biggest utilities — Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy — have poured a combined $15 million into a PAC promoting a ballot initiative that would “frustrate the expansion of consumer-owned rooftop solar in Florida.”
The two utilities spent another $27.5 million in support of state legislative campaigns — one would assume, on candidates who are sympathetic to the position they’ve taken on Amendment 1.
Florida Power & Light is not only that state’s largest utility, it is the principal subsidiary of NextEra. Leaders of NextEra tried mightily, though ultimately without success, to convince the Hawaii PUC, state government leaders and consumers throughout the islands that their company was “on board” with HECO’s goal of reaching 65 percent renewable energy use within 15 years, including tripling its use of distributed solar.
A year ago in Civil Beat’s Community Voices section, the president of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association drew an important distinction between how people might perceive NextEra’s claim and what it really meant.
“NextEra is pro solar and wind,” wrote Christian Adams. “However, a very important distinction that NextEra doesn’t mention when going around the state trying to sell this merger is that they are for renewable energy as long as NextEra owns and controls the power source.”
NextEra didn’t exactly run away from the characterization; executives frequently described it as “the world’s largest producer of renewable energy from the wind and sun.” Note who is doing the producing in that sentence.
“NextEra is pro solar and wind. However … they are for renewable energy as long as NextEra owns and controls the power source.” — Christian Adams, president, Hawaii Solar Energy Association
For Floridians, this is nothing new. A Rolling Stone article published in February detailed “The Koch Brothers’ Dirty War on Solar Power.” The piece noted how FPL and fossil-fuel interests such as the Koch brothers donor network is bankrolling Amendment 1 — the Smart Solar amendment.
“Despite the name, their amendment doesn’t advance the cause of solar power,” reported Tim Dickinson. “’Quite the reverse: ‘It locks existing statute into the constitution,’ says a skeptical Republican Florida lawmaker.” That “existing statute” is one that gives utilities “an absolute monopoly on electricity sales,” he wrote.
Dickinson’s reporting and Tuesday’s story from the Times also show just how far NextEra/FPL and its allies are willing to go to win the war. The $27.5 million that FPL and Duke have given to state politicians alone since January 2015 dwarfed what the four largest investor-owned utilities gave to both state candidates and political committees over the past decade — a total of $18 million.
Amendment 1 was described in the Times story by former U.S. Sen. and Florida Gov. Bob Graham as “deceptive,” a harmful step backward for the state’s energy future that will “discourage the expansion of solar by psychologically strengthening the position before an already complaint Legislature and Public Service Commission to erect barriers to solar.”
Hawaii Gov. David Ige was among many who saw the potential for similar duplicity in NextEra.
In July 2015, he held a press conference where he made public his thoughts on the proposed sale: “We are taking the position that the merger as proposed at this point is unacceptable.”
He went on to describe NextEra’s answers to questions about Hawaii’s 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2045 as “vague and noncommittal, to say the least.”
The governor’s opinion only hardened over the following year, as hearings over the proposed merger provided endless opportunities to dig into the details of NextEra’s intentions. When the PUC formally rejected the sale proposal this July, it didn’t surprise many observers. In explaining their decision, commissions outlined five fundamental areas of concern, one of which was — you guessed it — NextEra’s clean energy commitments.
Commented Isaac Moriwake, staff attorney for Earthjustice, at the time, “NextEra made this a no-brainer. Based on its opposition to clean energy in Florida and failure to chart a different path in this state, NextEra is not what Hawaii wants or needs.” Earthjustice was one of nearly two dozen critical organizations officially recognized as “intervening parties” in the NextEra proposal review.
In Florida with the heavily criticized Smart Solar amendment, FPL/NextEra may be headed for a fate similar to what they got in Hawaii. Nearly every major newspaper in the state has condemned the measure, and public support dropped from 84 percent in September to 59.8 percent last month, according to the Miami New Times.
For the amendment to succeed, it must be passed by at least 60 percent of those casting a vote on the measure in next Tuesday’s election. Analysts say that environmentalists have been sounding the alarm on Amendment 1 since last year, but until they took to social media in force earlier this year, they failed to get much traction with voters.
Hawaii, by comparison, focused early and in depth on what Florida Power & Light’s parent company wanted to bring to the table in this state, and sent the utility giant packing.
Ratepayers in our islands may still shoulder some of the nation’s highest rates for electricity. Though Hawaiian Electric is moving toward implementing a smart grid on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island and making progress on big wind and solar projects on Oahu, it has yet to put forward a comprehensive plan detailing how it will turn the state’s clean energy commitments into reality or how it will ever make energy more affordable.
Still, given the news from back East, Hawaii consumers can at least take comfort that the PUC blocked the NextEra deal, perhaps preventing our current reality from persisting generations into the future.