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NextEra Energy, HECO merger explained at Lahaina meeting

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Apr 16, 2015

LAHAINA – NextEra Energy and the Hawaiian Electric Companies held a series of public meetings on April 7-16 across the state to provide input about how their proposed $4.3 billion merger will advance a more affordable clean energy future for Hawaii.

The open-house meetings took place on Oahu, Hawaii Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai. Kauai, not included, is supplied by a locally owned cooperative, Kauai Electric.

At the Lahaina Civic Center gathering on April 8, the companies introduced residents to NextEra and informed them about the benefits of the pending merger. Senior leaders and other employees from both NextEra and Hawaiian Electric were on hand to talk about how they plan to increase renewable energy and lower customers’ bills.

“We wanted to put a face to the company name,” said NextEra Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Robert L. Gould. “NextEra intends to bring to Hawaii their know-how gained by years of experience of developing renewable energy projects in North America and running one of America’s largest utilities.”

“In addition,” Gould said, “NextEra supports Hawaiian Electric’s goal of tripling distributed solar by 2030, including rooftop solar.”

Kau’i Awai-Dickson, Maui Electric Company communications director, agreed that they also want what is best for Hawaii and the Hawaiian people.

“Our delay in rooftop solar has been due to safety, responsibility and the risk of losing the grid. NextEra brings so much value to the table,” she said, noting the company’s purchasing power and credit rating will be a big asset toward new energy goals.

“Joining with NextEra Energy provides Hawaiian Electric with added capacity, resources and access to deep operational expertise to strengthen and accelerate Hawaii’s clean energy transformation, while delivering substantial customer benefits, including lower costs,” said Awai-Dickson.

Some Lahaina residents, who wished to remain anonymous, stated concerns that the merger will prevent Maui from reaching its potential for straightforward use of solar energy.

“We haven’t discussed the things we can do in the next five years to be completely solar-powered on the island. The initial bill for 100 percent renewable may be high to build the upgrades; however, that will be true of the merger as well,” one resident noted.

Others offered the opinion that because so many smaller companies have found ways to get solar power without being tied into the grid, the electric companies are desperately seeking, by the proposed merger, for “a way to keep their own power strong.”

“So far, NextEra has indicated it supports Hawaiian Electric’s proposed plans but has yet to reveal its full intentions in Hawaii,” one resident said.

In fact, NextEra’s utility business, Florida Power & Light, relies heavily on liquefied natural gas and is notorious for blocking rooftop solar in Florida. Hawaii, in contrast, is a national leader in solar energy, especially customer-based rooftop solar.

Chris Mentzel, a Maui energy advocate since 1991 and founder of Hina Power Corporation, attended the meeting at the Lahaina Civic Center.

“I appreciate that much access to the leadership of both companies was available,” Mentzel said, noting his concerns.

“While NextEra has great resources to build wind and solar installations, they have so far chosen to follow Hawaiian Electric’s plan to move towards liquefied natural gas. Such an investment would lock Maui Electric into natural gas and delay 100 percent renewable for decades.”

“This year is pivotal for Maui’s energy future,” Mentzel continued. “The proposed merger has opened up the possibility for large changes at Maui Electric like never before. Plus, Mayor Alan Arakawa stated in an April 4 interview that he is interested in having Maui Electric turned into a locally owned co-op similar to Kauai Electric.”

The Public Utilities Commission, PUC, is actively listening to public input. A coalition of clean energy groups petitioned the PUC to complete its ongoing work to plan Hawaii’s energy future before considering the proposed acquisition. The PUC, finding that it is in the public interest to ensure a broad spectrum of interests are represented, has granted interested parties access to the decision-making process on whether to approve the sale.

One of the coalition’s concerns is that “the proposed merger would be granted in the special interest of two holders of monopoly franchises.” They note that picking one company for the future of Hawaii’s long-term energy needs leaves out the benefits and costs of having multiple performers.

Local and national solar advocates are asking that the merger and related rooftop solar plans not be considered until a number of existing issues are resolved. Some of these issues are: the potential investment costs, inefficiencies of existing fossil fuels, curtailment of renewable energy opportunities, loss of clean-energy jobs and higher customer rates due to misaligned utility incentives and spending.

Isaac Moriwate, attorney for Earthjustice, summarized the situation well. He said, “The legal standard for reviewing a proposed merger is ‘what’s in the public interest,’ and we need to finish the work to define where we’re going before deciding who’ll take us there.”