The Hawaii Public Utilities Commission Is More Important Than Ever - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Marco Mangelsdorf

Marco Mangelsdorf is the responsible managing employee for ProVision Solar in Hilo, a director of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative and a long-time veteran of the state’s energy arena.

With the state Supreme Court decision on the Hu Honua power plant and Kapolei Energy Storage project making news recently, the role and importance of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission has been more prominently front and center.

What, if anything, comes to mind when you hear of Hawaii’s PUC? Probably not a whole lot.

Officially, “The Public Utilities Commission regulates all chartered, franchised, certificated and registered public utility companies operating in the state; reviews and approves rates, tariffs, charges and fees; determines the allowable rate of earnings in establishing rates; issues guidelines concerning the general management of franchised or certificated utility businesses; and acts on requests for the acquisition, sale, disposition or other exchange of utility properties, including mergers and consolidations.”

Practical translation and why we should care: In matters of telecommunications, transportation and especially energy, the three PUC commissioners — who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate — and their staff wield substantial power and authority and tangibly affect the day-to-day lives of the people of Hawaii.

And in the face of sometimes intense scrutiny, pushback and pressure, these three commissioners — chair Jay Griffin, Jennie Potter and Leo Asuncion — are doing exactly what we should expect them to do as they act as the public’s fiduciaries in the face of large and influential corporate interests that can predictably seek to maximize profits and shareholder returns at the expense of Hawaii residents.

No other agency or public body in the state sits at such an important nexus point as these three and their staff wend their way through the complexities of technical, legal, economic, political and regulatory matters.

Hu Honua’s wood-burning power plant in Pepeekeo is just one of the many proposed Hawaii energy projects that the commissioners of the PUC are tasked with ruling on. Courtesy of Claudia Rohr

From research and planning to the integration of new ideas to address the needs and directions of the state now and going forward, from the study and development of policy and meaningful regulations to implement that policy, the PUC balances it all. It engages with a myriad of involved constituencies, including the Legislature, the governor, the State Energy Office, the state Division of Consumer Advocacy, academic and scientific communities, state, county and federal agencies, energy industries, business and legal communities, environmental organizations and, most important of all, the rate-paying public.

Of particular note and importance is the commission’s ongoing and intricate dance with Hawaiian Electric, one of Hawaii’s largest and most weighty corporations, which serves about 95% of Hawaii’s residents across five islands. With the backdrop of Hawaii’s ongoing and decades-long commitment to wean ourselves off of our shameless fossil fuels addiction, no previous PUC has done, and is doing, more to create necessary positive changes at that venerable company.

How the utility is working with the commission — and frankly sometimes working in opposition to them — in their efforts to move this utility toward a customer-centric, performance-based, clean-energy business model is one of the key dynamics we must all watch as Hawaii moves toward a more secure and healthy energy future. Given the catastrophic blackouts we have seen on the mainland, the resounding threats of climate change and the critical challenges of the transitions that the PUC and our energy industries need to navigate, the stakes are incredibly high.

And with the mandate for the end of coal in the state and oil-burning plants soon also to be shut down, the economic and social stresses of climate change and COVID-19 combined and increasing public concern about our precarious position here in the middle of the Pacific, we need to go beyond talking points, self-interest and politics to achieve a truly sustainable Hawaii.

The value of the dedicated and selfless public servants at the PUC is more important than ever. They are deserving of our appreciation and support in their efforts to do the right thing for the community of our state even in the face of contention from those they regulate.

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About the Author

Marco Mangelsdorf

Marco Mangelsdorf is the responsible managing employee for ProVision Solar in Hilo, a director of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative and a long-time veteran of the state’s energy arena.

Latest Comments (0)

While the author may seem well intended in his attempt to define the problems facing the PUC, he, as many others, fail to come up with meaningful suggestions on how Hawaii will be able to meet its goals of becoming 100% energy self sufficient.  The article appears mostly to pay homage to the PUC but with little useful recommendations.

CPete · 1 week ago

Refreshing to read of someone with Marco's credentials in defense of today's Hawai'i Public Utility Commission. After decades of battling other state PUC decisions which universally represent utility agendas often in conflict with ratepayer interests and environmental stewardship, Hawaii's current PUC line-up, chaired by Jay Griffin, is a shining example of public interest representation at its best -- and a model for other states regulators to follow. 

BeyondKona · 1 week ago

Agree that this is one of the things that Ige has gotten right. This current PUC is knowledgeable and hard-working...and HECO doesn't know what to do after pushing around the PUC for decades and getting whatever they wanted. HECO and other regulated utilities would be wise to stop undermining the PUC by dragging their feet and claiming things are "too hard"--and instead waking up to the reality that we need to get to 100% renewable ASAP not only for the climate but to control costs for consumers. They make money burning oil and cutting deals with high-cost corporate friends and want to keep that gravy train going! But the flip side is that we need to ensure that wind and solar and placed fairly throughout all communities in our islands--and that communities that do host major infrastructure (where it truly is an imposition) get a benefit on their bill.

PlaceBased · 1 week ago

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