Rob Parsons

How PC is the PUC?

A look at how the Public Utility Commission keeps us in the dark

by Rob Parsons

May 22, 2008

There may be more than VOG obscuring
Hawai`i's Sunshine

It's a farce if we testify only based on information from an announcement in the newspaper.
-Kula resident Dick Mayer

In a time when there is great emphasis on renewable energy to help our state loosen the shackles of its dependency on imported fuels, a newcomer might assume Hawai'i's "Sunshine Law" to be a mandate for solar panels. But Hawai'i's open meeting disclosure legislation, in effect since 1975, really isn't about renewable energy... or is it?

A meeting with the State Public Utility Commission (PUC) held last week at Maui Waena Intermediate School in Kahului illustrated the extent to which the public is being kept in the dark by the body that approves all new renewable energy projects proposed in Hawai'i. In order for island ratepayers to address their rising electric bills-the most costly in the U.S.-it may be necessary to closely examine the system that oversees Hawai'i's public utility and energy choices.

The PUC mainly conducts its business on Oahu, so it was a rare occasion when two Maui applications brought the commission and staff over here for an evening public hearing on May 15. One agenda item was a request by Wailuku Water Company, LLC (WWC) and Wailuku Water Distribution Company, LLC (WWDC) to obtain a license as a public utility and to set rates for distributing and selling waters from four main valleys, Na Wai Eha, of the West Maui Mountains. The other was a request by the Hawai'i Electric Company (HECO), including Maui Electric Company (MECO), to charge ratepayers an extra $1.80 a month to support ventures into renewable energy projects and infrastructure.

While far more people filled the crowded Maui Waena cafeteria to discuss the water issue, the renewable energy surcharge item came up first. "I support the concept of such a surcharge, but I'm concerned about some of the choices our utility is making in the renewable energy arena," Lance Holter of Paia said. Then he detailed the impacts of imported palm oil for biodiesel, ruining millions of acres of rainforest eco-systems in South East Asia and South America. "I don't want to be any part of this destruction, or have my surcharge support this kind of development," he said.

Long-time Maui Community College professor and community activist Dick Mayer of Kula addressed the two-of-three commissioners. He reminded them of a November 2004 PUC meeting. "Everyone in attendance at that time asked for an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] before approvals for Hawai'i Superferry," he said. "But you chose to pass the buck and let someone else make that call."

Mayer noted that he had visited the PUC office on Maui, but there was no information available on the file for the renewable energy surcharge. "There was a big fat book on the water application," Mayer told me later. "I called Honolulu and asked them why it wasn't posted on the web. They said it's in the process of being reconstructed, but that's what they said six months ago."

Former Mayor Alan Arakawa also expressed concern that the public had no opportunity to review the surcharge proposal before the meeting, except for a brief Powerpoint presentation provided by Ed Reinhardt, MECO's president.

"We don't know how we would monitor the cost efficiency of the chosen technologies for renewables," Arakawa said. "Why is there no rate reduction from the renewables we use now? We haven't had an adequate chance to review this proposal, and I can tell you that quite often the devil is in the details."

During Reinhardt's introductory comments, Kahu Charles K. Maxwell Sr. ("Uncle Charlie") stood and asked a point of information. Why should the utility speak first, he asked, and should they also be limited to three minutes? Commissioner Les Kondo said Reinhardt had that privilege because he represented the applicant.

Arakawa then asked that audience members be allowed to question Reinhardt, for clarification and to gain better understanding. Kondo did not allow that, though Reinhardt's closing comment was, "I'll be outside for those with questions."

When it was my own turn to speak, I opened by praising Commissioner Kondo. One of my best experiences during my four years as the Maui County Environmental Coordinator was dealing with the agency Kondo formerly headed, the Office of Information Practices (OIP), I said. Early in 2005, I drafted a letter for Mayor Arakawa's signature, requesting that the OIP study the refusal by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to release a requested copy of the Kahului Harbor Facility Layout Study for Hawai'i Superferry.

Under Kondo's guidance, the study was transmitted to Arakawa within 10 days, and the OIP admonished the DOT for withholding it in the first place.

But then I expressed frustration that the application for the renewable energy surcharge was nowhere to be found on the PUC's website, and that all we knew about the proposal came from a newspaper account from HECO's spokesperson-essentially, a press release.

"Please use your influence," I implored, "to provide disclosure to the public about how the PUC provides access to information."

Without necessary information, many questions simply could not be answered. How much money would HECO collect for renewable energy projects? Ten million dollars? A hundred million? More?

Would MECO ratepayers subsidize projects on other islands? Could such a fund also support unpopular energy choices, such as HECO's plans to import huge quantities of palm oil for processing in proposed mega-refineries on Maui and Oahu?

"Investors should be making investments, not ratepayers," Mayer said. "We should match our resources with the use of the electricity. For instance, we could match the large demand for air-conditioning in our hotels with solar photo-voltaic on their roofs.

"Don't approve this request until you have completed the Wheeling docket," Mayer added, referring to a pending provision for independent power producers to use the grid infrastructure. "Don't keep all the power with one company."

The PUC consists of just three commissioners, appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature. Chairman Carlito Caliboso was absent at last week's meeting. John Cole, the third member, previously worked in the Division of Consumer Advocacy (DCA), which provides analysis of all matters before the PUC. DCA Executive Director Catherine Awakuni vowed that her office would take an independent look at the request.

Commissioner Kondo repeatedly attempted to limit the range of discussion on both agenda items. He encouraged people to submit written comments to the PUC, though others claimed there was more value in the open discourse of public meetings. Kondo said that it typically takes six months or longer for the PUC to arrive at a decision, as long as no one files a petition to intervene in the process.

One of the few familiar with intervening in PUC dockets is Henry Curtis, Executive Director of Life of the Land. Curtis has filed to intervene in the Wheeling docket, the Biofuel Supply Contract docket and many other proceedings.

"HECO [the applicant] has refused to put forth a case and only wants to rebut Life of the Land's case," Curtis said about the Biofuel docket. "Life of the Land is being denied access to all of the information. In each of the 15 dockets we have been in, HECO has invented new procedural ways to try to block us."

Curtis told me that during a recent visit to the PUC office in Honolulu, he asked to see the latest posting of dockets. It was 40 days old. "That is a very serious matter, since the public only has 20 days to legally intervene from the posting date," he said.

Maybe it's time for the PUC to step out from behind the curtain of secrecy that shrouds the way it reviews energy projects and policies. The abundant resource of sunshine may not only power Hawai'i's energy future, but also should illuminate the ways island residents have a real voice in choices being made and how projects are chosen.