“If you want to walk fast, walk alone; but if you want to walk far, walk together.” – African proverb
I just finished reading the transcript of the “open session” the Public Utilities Commission hosted last month: the format included a lively conversation between moderator Maurice Kaya (project director for Hawaii Renewable Energy Development Venture) and lawyer/consultant/“guest presenter,” Scott Hempling. I am now sorry I couldn’t be there, for two reasons.
First, I learned a lot from this transcript. I learned from the results of a PUC-conducted survey that those respondents who practice before the PUC (such as the HECO companies) think the PUC is doing the best it can with limited resources. The rest of us though, the general public, ratepayers and taxpayers, described the PUC process as “incompetent,” a “rubber stamp for HECO,” not one that “listens to the public,” is “opaque” and operates “in a black box.”
That’s quite a divide. Nonetheless, based on a decade of consulting with many state commissions, Scott Hempling thinks Hawaii has a pretty “effective” Commission and should be applauded for several “progressive” actions, such as outsourcing “innovation” in energy efficiency; Hawaii is one of only four states that no longer relies on the utility to promote conservation measures.
I also learned that there is a lot of tension out there. There is tension between monopolistic utilities (such as HECO) and the recent emergence of independent power producers (IPPs) who are muscling in to capture what in Hawaii is a very limited market share. There is tension between what the Legislature says the PUC should be doing with the resources they provide, and what the PUC is actually capable of producing with those resources. There is tension in providing customers the choice to leave the grid, while being mindful of the necessity to keep the backbone utility whole, if the choice doesn’t work out and those customers need to come back. And there is tension between those who can afford to limit the power they draw from the grid by self-generating, and those who can’t.
Should the Commission penalize the utility for failing to meet legislative mandates, such as the renewable portfolio standards (RPS), or incentivize the utility to move faster in retiring old, polluting units? Or both? IPPs sell power wholesale to the utility and are not regulated by the Commission, should they be?
The tension that intrigued me the most, though, was balancing what a community will accept, as consistent with its values and lifestyle, and the need for the Commission to explain, according to Hempling, “that (it understands) the depth of damage it’s doing, and show how (it has) balanced that damage with a positive value.”
After admitting that he was “not close enough to states that do well on community access to the decision-making process,” Hempling unfortunately expressed the view that the technical definition of evidence, by which he thinks the Commission is bound, has “nothing to do with how many people on a particular island are upset about the siting of a plant(,) or how many people are upset about the size of their bill(,) or how many people are upset about the utility’s powers to take their land away. There is nothing in regulatory law that allows the Commission to use community anger as evidence to make a decision. (Hold a) community hearing, let people have their say, and then get it done.”
With this I must disagree, and wish I could have done so in person.
The second reason I wish I had attended this open session would have been to correct the following statement, made according to the transcript by my fellow Lanaian, Alberta de Jetley:
“I’m one of the supporters of renewable energy on the island (of Lanai), and everywhere I turn, we have a faction of the community who are against it. … So as a community member and being on all these different community organizations, what do I do and how, what would you suggest that we do to let people know how important it is for us to go to renewables. It is a constant battle. I don’t care if it’s solar. I don’t care if it’s wind. I don’t care if it is biodiesel. But somehow or another we are going to get off fossil fuels. And every time I turn around I’m slapped and stomped on by the anti-faction.”
I want to reassure everyone that there is no “stomping” or “slapping” happening on Lanai, and it’s pretty clear that Alberta was talking about Big Wind, the mega-turbine wind project Lanai and Molokai have relentlessly opposed for years. We have done so because it would do nothing to make either island more energy-independent or sustainable, and we do so because it would destroy much of the community-value based lifestyle those islands cherish. There simply isn’t any “positive value” to offset the “damage” done.
But to characterize the good people of Lanai as “anti” renewable energy is both untrue and unacceptable: Lanai residents have for years consistently advocated FOR renewable energy, FOR Lanai.
Hempling, who proclaimed himself a former “activist,” initially commiserated with Alberta: he lamented the fact that the Legislature creates an “aggressive schedule for renewable power, then creates a situation where a developer who wants to help meet those goals goes to an island and is stifled and is … thrown out by a group of community activists who don’t want it.” He thought one solution would be to have the Legislature give the PUC the “legal power to go over to Lanai, and tell the landowners there and the community to stuff it and let the plant get built.” Fortunately, Hempling also acknowledged that the Legislature has the power to say, “There shall be no construction of wind because we just think the aesthetic value is so much higher than any benefit that could occur.”
And that’s precisely what the Legislature did on April 23, 2013, when it unanimously passed HCR 189, asking the Governor “to engage and work with Lanai, Molokai, and the other neighbor island communities when formulating energy policy and identifying energy projects for the State of Hawaii.” Indeed, the Legislature spoke out because “residents and community groups on Molokai and Lanai have strongly opposed the construction of wind energy generation facilities on those islands” and because “energy projects face much less community opposition, delay, and legal challenges when the community is engaged early and is given the opportunity to work together with the State and energy partners.”
It is ironic that at the end of the day Hempling “didn’t want to express any opinion about who’s right and who’s wrong on Lanai because it’s not my candy store … And I’m going to be spending nine days on Molokai for the express purpose of enjoying a lot of beautiful landscape that hasn’t been affected by wind or solar.”
Lucky you are, Scott, that the Commission did not take your advice about telling the community to just “stuff it.” Your vacation might have been ruined.
So I thank you, Commissioners, for the opportunity to learn from this session, and urge others to read the presentation. Hopefully you will invite more national speakers, and perhaps we can educate them as well: Community DOES matter, and community anger and opposition IS evidence. Evidence that perhaps it’s time to follow the path laid out by our Legislature in HCR 189.
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