Scott Seu will replace Alan Oshima as president and chief executive of Hawaiian Electric Co., marking a significant leadership change at one of Hawaii’s largest firms as the company embarks on a major series of renewable energy projects slated for Oahu and neighbor islands.

A Stanford-educated mechanical engineer, Seu has been serving as a senior vice president overseeing HECO’s regulatory, government and community affairs and corporate relations during a time of rapid and fundamental change. He’s scheduled to replace Oshima in the first quarter of 2020, and Oshima will serve as a senior adviser to the company through 2020, the company said Tuesday.

Hawaii law requires virtually all the electricity sold in the state to be generated with renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, by 2045. HECO is responsible for implementing the bulk of the work to shift from fossil-fuel power plants to solar and wind farms owned and developed by third parties.

Scott Seu, pictured here at the 2017 Maui Energy Conference, will take the helm of the Hawaiian Electric Co. at a critical time. Seu has said Hawaii is not doing enough to address the threats and opportunities from climate change. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The new CEO will have to navigate not only developments, but a growing protest movement that poses potential risks to developers for renewable projects. A wind farm proposed by AES Corp. in the North Shore community of Kahuku, for example, has been stalled by protests. And it’s unclear whether other projects will face similar opposition.

By 2022, HECO must replace a coal-fired plant that produces about 20% of Oahu’s power. That will mean new wind and solar projects with a collective footprint 29 times the size of Aloha Stadium.

“This is a critical time in our state’s clean energy transformation and as I talk to people it’s clear that there are many different visions of the best way forward,” Seu, a Kamehameha Schools graduate, said in a statement. “That means our work isn’t just about technology, but about pulling together as a community to collaborate and understand the choices we can make.”

A subsidiary of the holding company Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., HECO operates Oahu’s utility and is the parent company of Hawaii Electric Light Co. on the Big Island and Maui Electric Co. Accordingly, as HECO’s chief executive, Seu will oversee all three companies. An independent cooperative operates Kauai’s utility.

HECO changes leadership as a growing protest movement poses risks for a major series of projects soon to be announced. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2019

Earlier this week, the industry trade publication Utility Dive named HECO its utility of the year for 2019. The publication, which is known for sophisticated, often critical coverage of the industry, commended HECO for “advancing across a range of issues transforming the power sector, from renewables to electric vehicles (EVs) to new business models.”

In an interview, Seu pointed to the award to show HECO has been recognized for its progress.

“We’re actually going faster than probably any other utility in the nation,” Seu said.

This includes not only shifting away from fossil fuels but also taking steps to modernize the electrical grids.

Still, Seu said the company will keep pushing.

“The main message we want to send is that we want to go faster,” he said. “The status quo is not acceptable.”

How fast the company can go remains to be seen. The company is scheduled to announce the latest round of renewable projects in May. At that point it could become clearer whether communities are willing to accept projects in their backyards.

HECO has emphasized community engagement when issuing recent requests for proposals from developers. And Seu said some are paying attention, in some cases even starting to reach out to communities before being officially chosen.

“The bottom line is it has never been more important for us to realize we are part of a bigger thing here,” he said.

Not everybody has been impressed with HECO’s performance. A growing number of voices are calling for management changes at HECO and its parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries.

Among those agitating for change is Jeffrey Ubben, an AES director and chief executive of a hedge fund invested in Hawaiian Electric Industries. Ubben has called for someone from outside the company to replace HEI’s chief executive, Constance Lau, when she steps down.

William Giese, executive director of the Hawaiian Solar Energy Association, said he hopes Seu can help HECO embrace changes better than it has so far.

“My quick reaction is that Scott is a nice guy, and it seems like he’s competent,” Giese said. “But he’s also been at HECO for a long time, so hopefully he can shake the chains of institutional bias that have been at HECO for a while.”

Asked if he thought Seu was a good choice, Giese said, “TBD I guess. I wish him luck, it’s a tough job.”

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