Naomi Kuwaye, a utilities lawyer, is one step closer to gaining a seat on a state commission in charge of regulating public utilities in the islands.

The Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee voted 4-1 to recommend that the full Senate approve Kuwaye’s nomination to the Public Utilities Commission. Gov. David Ige nominated Kuwaye for a spot on the PUC currently held by outgoing PUC Chairman Jay Griffin.

At the committee hearing Wednesday morning, Kuwaye, an attorney with Ashford & Wriston who has represented clients before the PUC, fielded questions from state senators on her stance on certain energy projects and how she would balance Hawaii’s need for more renewable energy with community concerns raised over some of those projects.

The Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee voted 4-1 to advance Naomi Kuwaye’s nomination for the PUC. Screenshot: Hawaii Senate/2022

She also faced opposition from community members and environmental activists over her past work for companies like Hawaiian Electric Co. and others. Some of her clients had business before the PUC. The senators also focused on how Kuwaye would navigate any potential conflicts of interest that could arise if her former clients come before the PUC in the future.

“I have no problems moving against my former clients,” Kuwaye said.

“I would see myself as representing the state, and the state is my client,” she said. “I am going to be advocating on behalf of the state.”

Most public testifiers and senators on the committee supported Kuwaye’s appointment. But Sen. Joy San Buenaventura was the lone lawmaker to vote against her nomination over responses to questions regarding a power plant on the Hamakua Coast.

San Buenaventura questioned Kuwaye about her work for Hu Honua, a controversial tree-burning plant that is back in front of the PUC as it tries to clear state regulatory hurdles.

Kuwaye said that she worked on a due diligence memo for the company, in which she evaluated land use and regulatory issues.

San Buenaventura asked if Kuwaye would recuse herself from any matters involving Hu Honua. Kuwaye declined to talk about any project in particular and said she would need to take each potential conflict on a case by case basis. She said she would confer with PUC attorneys and the state ethics commission first.

“I don’t want to give a firm decision one way or another,” she said during questioning from San Buenaventura.

San Buenaventura said her refusal to say she would recuse herself meant she could not support Kuwaye’s nomination.

Other testifiers also brought up her past clients.

John Kawamoto, a former legislative analyst, opposed her nomination because Kuwaye worked for NextEra Energy, a company that tried and failed to acquire Hawaiian Electric Industries.

During questioning from senators, Kuwaye said she was one of 10 lawyers NextEra hired to represent the company as its proposal to buy Hawaiian Electric was under consideration by the PUC.

In a written response to the Senate’s questions about conflicts of interest posted just before the committee hearing, Kuwaye said that the “potential for conflicts of interest will likely arise.”

But, she wrote, she no longer has any dockets pending before the PUC.

Community Conflict

The nominee also faced questions over how she would navigate community conflicts when siting renewable energy projects.

Sens. Gil Rivere and Kurt Fevella brought up protests over the Na Pua Makani wind farm project that drew tremendous opposition from Kahuku residents in 2019. Police made more than 200 arrests that year during protests attempting to halt construction of the turbines.

Sunny Unga, who spoke to the committee on behalf of the Kahuku Community Association, said developers of renewable energy projects should consider community concerns.

“We are urging for a PUC representative that can listen to the community and represent those voices as well,” Unga said.

Windmills tower over Kahuku High School.
A wind farm in Kahuku has riled residents. Kuwaye said developers should be taking community concerns into account. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Kuwaye said the PUC should play a role in determining where renewable energy projects are sited. She said she’d have difficulty approving a project that could not demonstrate that it tried to address community concerns.

Hawaii’s goal of generating 100% of its power via renewable energy by 2045 must be balanced against Native Hawaiian cultural concerns, environmental impacts and social impacts, Kuwaye said.

Ben Kudo, an attorney at Ashford & Wriston, described Kuwaye as a person of “high integrity.”

“She brings a diversity of interests” to the commission, Kudo said, noting her experience in environmental, land use and utilities law.

In an interview after the committee hearing, Kuwaye said she appreciated being asked tough questions by the senators.

“They asked good questions, and I look forward to a full Senate vote,” Kuwaye said.

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