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Maui Energy Conference 2015: Focus on the customer and HECO-NextEra Merger

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Apr 2, 2015

KAHULUI – The Mayor’s Office of Economic Development in partnership with the Maui Economic Development Board presented the second annual Maui Energy Conference on March 25-27 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. The theme of the conference, which included nationally recognized experts, explored the evolving role of the electric utility as seen by the customer.

In addition, the conference gave a glimpse into Hawaii’s historic, proposed energy merger of Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) and NextEra Energy, a Florida-based company. In December, the companies announced the $4.3 billion acquisition deal. The proposed union still needs approval from the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.

The energy-merger players and attendees at the conference discussed emerging trends in the electric utility industry and public policy that will shape customer choices, customer protection and engagement, renewable energy integration, micro-grids and demand-response programs.

Nationally, the discussion of energy supply has centered on the shift of utilities from being service and commodity providers to being managers of energy. Emerging technologies, such as photovoltaic and electric vehicles, have accelerated this shift, putting the energy customer front and center not only as a consumer but as a potential energy provider.

Two of the major players in the proposed merger of HECO and NextEra Energy delivered keynote addresses on the conference’s opening day.

“We have an initiative,” said Alan M. Oshima, president and CEO of HECO, noting the future of sustainability is tied to advances in technology. “The electric industry is changing, and we have to go with it.”

“We are the right company for Hawaii,” said NextEra Energy President Eric Gleason, describing NextEra’s reputation as one of the world’s largest clean energy companies. “Reaching the goal of renewable energy, tripling distributed solar and lowering electric bills 20 percent by 2030 is our goal.”

NextEra, roughly 14 times larger than Hawaiian Electric, has the capability to bring less-expensive liquefied natural gas, LNG, to Hawaii as a substitute for diesel fuel while incorporating distributed solar and wind power alternatives.

Constance Lau, president and chief executive officer of HEI, described the merger as a “transformational opportunity” for Hawaii’s electric utility to accelerate the shift away from traditional diesel-powered turbines to clean energy.

In her speech, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, Lau said the company will continue to pursue LNG as a “bridge fuel.”

In one of the most spirited conversations, Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Island; David Freeman, a consultant in the utility industry; and John Farrel, director of the Democratic Energy Institute for Local Self-Reliance, painted the HECO-NextEra merger as being really about business, executives and shareholders.

Freeman mentioned how moving more toward renewable energy will decentralize the utility and break up its political strength. He faulted the companies for planning to shift from oil to LNG to help Hawaii transition to a clean energy future.

“The idea of replacing oil with LNG is like switching from Camels to Lucky Strikes,” Freeman said, making it clear that a shift to LNG is a major area of disagreement.

In addition, Jeff Ono from the state Department of Commerce, Division of Consumer Advocacy, raised various concerns he has with the HECO-NextEra merger. One concern is a “local advisory board” that NextEra and Hawaiian Electric said would be created if the deal goes through.

“The board will be meaningless if it’s stacked with Hawaiian Electric Company executives,” he said.

Hunter Lovin, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, focused on the customers of the 21st century and their needs.

“Maui is an island rich in energy,” said Lovin. “If we use services like Hawaii Energy to implement energy efficiency in our homes and businesses, and seek solar on our roofs along with a commitment from Maui County for 100 percent renewable power, we will have a future of affordable power with no imported energy.”

Neil “Dutch” Kuyper, Parker Ranch CEO, said, “The utility has persuaded us that their way is the only way and that the monopoly has been good for Hawaii. This may not be the case.”

“We must focus our collective energies on what is in the best interest of all of us,” he said.

“Smart Grid technologies are coming,” announced Jeff Mikulina, CEO of the Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to clearing the path for clean energy. “We inspire communities to adopt smart, replicable energy solutions,” said Mikulina, noting that Blue Planet Foundation encourages the use of smart meters through their collaboration and advocacy.

Dr. Debra Greene, a conference participant from KeepYourPower.org who has attended the conference for the past two years, disagrees with Mikulina. Her Maui-based organization is focused on stopping smart meters – wireless electricity meters that HECO-NextEra plan to deploy throughout Maui County, Lanai and the Big Island. Kauai is the only island in the state not supplied by HEI.

“There are many reasons to be concerned, not the least of which are privacy invasion, in-home surveillance, grid security issues and the negative health effects of electromagnetic radiation emitted by the meters,” said Dr. Greene.

Although there was one panelist who voiced security concerns about smart meters, Dr. Greene was disappointed that there was not more debate about the controversial meters at the conference, especially since the planned rollout will impact every HECO-NextEra customer.

“Ironically,” she added, “the conference theme was ‘Focus on the Customer.’ “

Dr. Greene also serves as president of the Maui Meadows Neighborhood Association, with Maui Meadows being the only place on Maui that has smart meters. The neighborhood was part of a pilot project that had targeted 200 volunteer households for smart meter installation but ended up with only 88 meters installed.

“People dropped out of the program after learning about the negative effects of the meters,” Dr. Greene said.

Mayor Alan Arakawa re-stated his goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. “To get rid of monopolies,” he said, “we need 100 percent renewable. This is a process. Maui has advantages and challenges. Plans need the discussion, and this conference group needs to start the ground work.”

“Now. We need to do this now!” exclaimed the mayor. He ended with a quote from Thomas Edison: “Discontent is the first necessity of progress.”

The Maui Energy Conference concluded on Friday, March 27, with a field trip to Kaheawa Wind Farm hosted by SunEdison and a Smart Grid demonstration project, JUMPSmartMaui, hosted by Hitachi Ltd.

For a summary and report of conference proceedings, visit mauienergyconference.com/.