When AES Hawaii floated the idea of using wood chips instead of coal to power its Barber’s Point coal plant last month, the company mentioned it was doing so after being approached by Scott Glenn, director of the Hawaii State Energy Office.

But in its letter to regulators, AES cited not only Glenn’s role running the energy office, but also another title Glenn has: chairman of an influential entity called the Powering Past Coal Task Force, a group created by Gov. David Ige to solve one of Oahu’s critical energy issues.

The task force’s meetings are closed to the media and general public; it’s operating outside of open government laws yet it includes some of Hawaii’s most powerful elected officials, along with private and nonprofit parties on multiple sides of renewable energy issues.

AES Hawaii Power plant coal burning electric powerplant located in Kalaeloa.
AES Hawaii’s coal burning electric plant is scheduled to shut down in September 2022. A critical question is what projects will be on line then to replace it. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Ige and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi are members. Others include the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates energy projects, and the Consumer Advocate, which represents the public’s interest in energy proceedings.

Members from the private sector include Hawaiian Electric and several energy project developers, including AES. Also on board are Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, and Marti Townsend, director of the Hawaii Sierra Club.

It seems just about everybody has been invited to the task force except average citizens and news media, which are not allowed.

As Ige’s executive order creating the task force puts it: “Meetings shall be restricted in attendance to its members.”

With AES expected to shutter the coal plant in September 2022, the Ige administration, as the executive order explains it, assembled the group to help solve problems facing renewable energy projects that have cleared the regulatory hurdles needed to operate and replace the coal plant. With about 20% of Oahu’s electricity coming from the coal plant, having new projects on line to replace it is important to minimize risks of blackouts.

“The focus is on making sure we can retire the coal plant reliably,” Glenn said.

One of the main work products of the group, as stated in Ige’s order, is a master schedule for the implementation of projects that have gotten approval to sell power to Hawaiian Electric.

R Brian Black Executive Director Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest testifies during charter commission meeting at Honolulu Hale.
Brian Black, who advocates for more government transparency as president and executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said, “All the governor has done here is create a smoke-filled backroom by executive order.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Still, having a meeting closed to the general public is an odd posture for an entity whose stated purpose, among other things, is “to convene stakeholders to increase transparency,” says Brian Black, president and executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which advocates for transparency in government.

“It is ridiculous to claim that the purpose of a secretive group with strict confidentiality rules is ‘to increase transparency,’” Black said. “All the governor has done here is create a smoke-filled backroom by executive order.”

Black declined to comment on whether the task force is violating Hawaii’s open meetings laws. But Ige’s executive order seems designed to ensure that the task force doesn’t take the sort of government actions that would trigger the need for public participation.

Life of the Land’s Curtis, who has long called for transparency in government, said his organization generally doesn’t support such confidential meetings. But Curtis said everything the task force is looking at falls into Public Utilities Commission proceedings that are open to the public.

“I think there are enough open utility proceedings available so that if the public wanted to get more involved they could,” Curtis said.

In addition, he said, the PUC now holds frequent status conferences on various issues, which are posted on YouTube.

“The current Public Utilities Commission is far more open and far more transparent than any other Hawaii Public Utilities Commission,” Curtis said.

State Energy Office officials also say the public interest is being represented by the officials on the task force. Glenn acknowledged task force membership is by the governor’s invitation only, something similar to government working groups. But he said Ige has invited a range of participants.

Kirsten Baumgart Turner, Hawaii’s deputy chief energy officer, said the community interest is represented by Curtis, Townsend and Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earthjustice in Honolulu.

Members said there’s value in mustering parties that normally work in silos.

“I will say I appreciate Scott Glenn putting this group together,” said Hawaii Sen. Glenn Wakai, who was invited to the task force as chair of the Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee. “The fact that he’s brought all of these disparate parties together is a really good step.”

Curtis said the master schedule will provide a useful overview of projects that should be coming on line relatively soon. Although the information is generally public, it tends to be buried in multiple proceedings before the PUC, Curtis said, so there’s value in putting everything in one place.

A big picture view makes clear the overall impact of, say, one project hitting delays, he said, which might not be clear if the public can’t see how such a delay would affect Oahu’s overall energy supply.

“If you were to look at them individually, you would not see the holistic pattern,” he said.

Gov. David Ige’s executive order establishing the Powering Past Coal Task Force is available here.

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