The measure aims to speed up regulatory approvals but has generated concern over how it may help certain developers.

A bill aimed at accelerating the pace of state regulatory approval for renewable energy contracts is barreling through the Legislature.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who sponsored Senate Bill 72, told Civil Beat that she’s trying to help wind and solar energy companies get their projects vetted in a timelier fashion by the Public Utilities Commission.

Big Island locator map

The proposed legislation, as originally drafted, would require the three-member PUC to make decisions on certain renewable projects, power purchase agreements and cost recovery applications within 180 days. It’s since been amended to allow up to nine months for such decisions.

But swirling in the background are concerns from some community members who believe the bill has a hidden agenda: to help the embattled Hu Honua biomass project, which is located north of Hilo in Inouye’s district.

The Public Utilities Commission has six months to complete proceedings involving consumer rates under Senate Bill 72. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

Inouye said that’s simply not the case. “I’m not following Hu Honua’s application process,” she said.

The bill, if passed, would help all renewable energy projects because it would speed up the regulatory approval process, she said.

Hu Honua is a proposed tree-burning plant that has received PUC approval twice but both times those decisions ended up before the Hawaii Supreme Court. The court is currently reviewing Hu Honua’s appeal of the PUC’s 2022 denial of the company’s application. A decision is expected soon.

Henry Curtis, of the energy and environmental advocacy group Life of the Land, told lawmakers that the measure would slash the PUC review process and result in the approval of the Hu Honua project.

Brenton Awa.
Sen. Brenton Awa voted against the measure over concerns about it being tied to the embattled Hu Honua biomass project. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Republican Sen. Brenton Awa said he was convinced enough by the public testimony tying the bill to Hu Honua that he voted against it in the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee on Tuesday. He’s been the lone “no” vote thus far in the process.

Senate Bill 72 would exempt some power purchase agreements — or energy contracts — from PUC oversight altogether. And it would require the PUC to complete proceedings involving consumer rates within a six-month window.  

Inouye said she became aware of PUC delays when a former constituent, Richard Horn, of Hawi Renewable Development, a wind farm in North Kohala, had trouble getting an expired power purchase agreement renewed by the commission. She also heard from solar power developers who were frustrated by extended delays getting power purchase agreements approved.  

“There were several that were in the hopper for like 10 years. That’s ridiculous,” Inouye said.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye says her bill would speed up the regulatory approval process for energy projects. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy, Economic Development and Tourism on Jan. 31, PUC Chair Leo Asuncion said his agency could live with the bill, if passed, because most of the time, “our track record is that we’re beating the 180 days.”

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim asked how many renewable energy projects end up going over the 180-day mark for getting a PUC decision. Asuncion said in the three and a half years he’s been on the commission, it’s only happened a handful of times and usually that related to issues outside the PUC’s purview, such as appeals, contested cases or the need for environmental reviews by other agencies.

Ted Bohlen, a former deputy attorney general and founder of Climate Protectors Hawaii, called the bill unwise and anti-consumer during the same hearing.

Ted Bohlen
Ted Bohlen

The proposed deadline for decision-making on power purchase agreements would not give the PUC’s consumer advocate and other watchdogs enough time to review them and the bill could end up raising energy costs for consumers while benefiting developers and utilities, Bohlen said.

A provision of the bill exempts from PUC oversight approved power purchase agreements if they have rates that are lower than the previously approved ones.

“There are existing PPAs that have much higher rates than we have today in competitive bidding and that’s because the solar and wind projects with storage have been coming in at much lower rates,” he said.

Consumer Advocate Dean Nishina, in written testimony, agreed that denying the commission the opportunity to determine whether contract prices should be lower “would mean that customers could be asked to bear higher than reasonable costs.”

Consumer Advocate Dean Nishina says the bill could end up sticking customers with “higher than reasonable costs.” (DCCA)

He also said the timelines could make it difficult for the PUC to achieve its constitutional obligation to provide all parties the right to due process such as evidentiary hearings.

Opposition to the proposed legislation also came from the Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, 350Hawaii and five individuals.

Inouye said her bill will decrease electricity rates for consumers by providing developers with added certainty regarding timing, which helps to lower bid pricing. And it will help Hawaii achieve its goal of being powered 100% by renewable energy by 2045.

Inouye noted that the bill has been amended so it would only apply to renewable energy projects going forward, not ones already wading through the PUC process.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who co-introduced the bill, says the bill is not intended to benefit a single company. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In an interview, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he co-introduced SB 72 because it’ll help keep the PUC on track.

“We have this culture in government where we allow things to languish for quite some time and it’s not good for business and it’s not good for getting things done,” Dela Cruz said.

As far as whether SB 72 is designed to somehow help Hu Honua, Dela Cruz said the bill is broad and not intended to benefit a single company.

“This is statewide policy,” he said.

The measure is now headed to a vote by the full 25-member Senate before it would cross over to the House for consideration.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author