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KAHULUI, Maui — This time last year the buzz in the hallways of the Maui Arts and Cultural Center was about Florida-based NextEra Energy’s odd absence from the Maui Energy Conference that’s been held here since its inception in 2014.
After all, Hawaiian Electric CEO Alan Oshima and NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason had taken the stage together the year before to tout how their planned $4.3 billion merger would benefit electric customers on Maui, Oahu and Big Island.
At that time, the decision on the sale was still pending before state regulators. But the writing must have been on the wall, as just four months after the 2016 conference wrapped up, the Public Utilities Commission rejected the deal amid an outpouring of opposition from clean-energy groups and Gov. David Ige’s administration.
This year’s conference was free from impending merger deals dominating the discussion. Still, there were whispers of Twenty First Century Utilities’ interest in Hawaiian Electric — executives flew from the mainland to participate in the conference — but that was it. Correction: an earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Twenty First Century Utilities is owned by Warren Buffett.
That left room for panels to dive deeper into discussions about other topics, noticeably broader in scope and significance. “Resilience” was the buzz word this week. And it was about how the state intends to achieve its goals, even looking beyond a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045 to getting the transportation sector off of fossil fuels.
As Doug McLeod, the program committee chair, put it Wednesday, when the three-day conference opened, the focus this year was about “why” more than “how.”
“Why are we doing this? Is the goal to reduce imports, reduce emissions affecting human health? What type of place are we trying to create? What type of life do we want for our kids?” he said, musing on the reasons motivating Hawaii’s transition to clean energy.
Public Utilities Commission Chair Randy Iwase, who told the conference crowd of about 400 that he remains “very comfortable” with the commission’s decision in June to reject the NextEra deal, said there will be more difficult decisions to be made in the coming months and years.
But, he said, it’s not just making those tough choices that matters. It’s also explaining why they were made to the public — in terms the average person at the bus stop could understand.
“I don’t think we’ve done the job yet,” Iwase said of that communication effort.
“It’s not about controlling the wave. It’s actually about riding the wave.” — Cheryl Roberto, Twenty First Century Utilities
“Some of these things that must be done may be costly,” he said, adding that the person at the bus stop don’t care about the complexity of the task. “If there’s a cost that’s going to be associated, they have to understand why.”
It can be challenging, if not impossible, to foresee the energy issues that state regulators, politicians and the public will be wrestling with 10, 20 or 30 years from now. But energy experts, planners and others at the conference were nonetheless put in a position in which they had to offer up their informed best guesses.
State Business, Economic Development and Tourism Director Luis Salaveria moderated a panel Thursday morning featuring Aki Marceau of Energy Excelerator, Kush Patel of E3 Energy + Environmental Economics, and Cheryl Roberto of Twenty First Century Utilities, an investment utility firm in Washington, D.C., though Roberto is based in Ohio.
Roberto said utilities have been the backbone of energy transformation and will continue to be but she sees their role evolving. She doesn’t see them as the sole power provider, for instance, but as a platform for integrating all the energy services out there and as a market innovator.
“It’s not about controlling the wave,” Roberto said. “It’s actually about riding the wave.”
She sees a “benefits-corporation structure” in the utility model of the future that takes advantage of the local control that a municipal-owned or cooperative-owned utility has while providing the capital benefits of an investor-owned model, such as Hawaiian Electric.
It would still be an investor-owned model, Roberto explained in an interview. But it would limit the number of investors to a “smallish” number, perhaps six to 10, and require a board member to publicly report how well the utility is doing to meet “the mission-driven idea of transforming the energy system for the public good.”
Officially called a B Corporation, Green Mountain Energy in Vermont is so far the only utility company to institute this model, she said.
Asked about Twenty First Century Utilities’ interest in Hawaiian Electric, Roberto said the company’s executives came to Hawaii as a place to learn.
“It’s one of the most dynamic energy landscapes in the U.S.,” she said. “Being a utility investment firm, we can learn.”
Ultimately, Roberto said, Twenty First Century Utilities is “exploring utilities throughout the northern hemisphere as potential flagships.”