Powerful resistance to PUC


West Hawaii residents described to the Public Utilities Commission how they have cut back on energy usage, and questioned why Hawaiian Electric Light Co. shouldn’t have to bear the costs of upgrading its own equipment.

The questions continued as the PUC heard comments from residents Tuesday evening on a proposed contract between HELCO, Oahu’s Hawaii Electric Co. and Aina Koa Pono for a biodiesel project in Ka‘u.

Albert Prados, manager of the Fairway Villas at Waikoloa Beach Resort, was one of more than 20 people who testified against HELCO’s rate increase request, which HELCO officials would raise rates 4.2 percent, or about $8 per an average 500 kilowatt hour monthly bill. Prados described the measures he has taken in his own home, including shutting everything off except the refrigerator at night, to lower his electricity bill.

“Last month alone, with these cutbacks, I was only able to save 27 cents per day,” Prados said. “Every effort that I’ve made will be immediately taken away. That $8 means a lot.”

More than 100 people attended the hearing in Kealakehe High School’s library. It was the second PUC on the island this week; more than 100 people attended a similar hearing Monday evening in Hilo.

Several testifiers criticized HELCO’s management practices, including having a president and CEO on Hawaii Island, Maui and Oahu, as well as having those executives report to a president and CEO of their parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries. HELCO President Jay Ignacio, at the start of the hearing, said the increase was needed to cover the costs of grid maintenance and upgrade, as well as tasks such as tree trimming. Those justifications didn’t sit well with many testifiers.

“HELCO has made heavy profits for quite some time now,” Wayne Reese said. “The company should be able to fund maintenance out of their current budget. They’ve been doing that all along. Why a rate increase is needed to continue ongoing maintenance is beyond me.”

Other testifiers said if the businesses they run have losses, they have to absorb those losses.

“The problem is the business is being run as a failure,” Dusty Tubbs said, adding that if he invests in a company and the stocks go down, “I lose money. They don’t get to raise the price of the stock because they’re losing money. Let’s replace the management.”

More than half of the attendees left before the PUC took up the HELCO and HECO contract with Aina Koa Pono, about two hours after the hearing was scheduled to begin. Before community members began testifying, state Consumer Advocate Jeff Ono noted that while the application calls for charging customers on the Big Island and Oahu, state law would allow the PUC to choose to charge only Oahu residents.

“I’m interested to know if your views of the biodiesel supply contract would change if maybe all of the costs were borne by Oahu ratepayers and none of it by Big Island ratepayers,” Ono said.

Aina Koa Pono Partner Chris Eldridge took the microphone to defend the project against comments made at Monday night’s hearing . The surcharge isn’t to be used to fund the project’s development, Eldridge said, because it won’t be charged until after the facility is built.

He apologized for the company’s mistakes during its first application process last year.

“We realize we made a number of mistakes in addressing the community last time,” Eldridge said. “We’ll do a much better job in the future.”

Dick Matsumoto asked the commissioners to reject the long-term, fixed-rate contract.

“The public should not be charged a surcharge to support a private enterprise,” Matsumoto said. “Signing a long-term contract is unreasonable and not helping our electricity bills. We will be paying more and it’s not a proven commodity. When the biofuel is ready to be purchased, we’ll see if it’s cheaper. They take all the risk.”

Farmer Richard Ha addressed first Ono’s question, noting that his opposition to the project would continue even if the surcharge was only applied to Oahu customers. He questioned the technology Aina Koa Pono proposes to use. Some engineers he has talked with said the biodiesel creation process Aina Koa Pono would use burns more energy than it will create.

One testifier from Ka‘u spoke in support of the proposal.