comscore If NextEra can’t deliver what public wants, another option is a publicly owned utility | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Editorial | Island Voices

If NextEra can’t deliver what public wants, another option is a publicly owned utility

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Last year I wrote in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that Florida-based NextEra must be shown aloha and given a chance to share its plans.

This is a pivotal moment for Hawaii — we have committed to cheaper renewable energy, and public demand for solar power and lower prices continues to grow. Hawaiian Electric Co.’s outdated centralized utility model must change, and moving forward requires thorough planning and answers to difficult questions. Unfortunately, NextEra delivered neither.

Instead, NextEra has spent enormous amounts of money on a public relations campaign trying to sway polls showing local opposition to the takeover. NextEra’s commercials may claim it will be a good fit for Hawaii, but the company’s actions prove exactly the opposite.

While NextEra publicly announced that it would be “engaging with and listening to key stakeholders,” behind the scenes NextEra fought aggressively to prevent nearly all local stakeholders from participating in its merger proceedings before the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. It then tried to silence them by attempting to limit the questions they could ask NextEra.

NextEra says it supports “integrating more rooftop solar energy,” but the company just filed its latest round of opposition to a Florida effort that would finally allow residents to generate power from their own solar panels like we can in Hawaii.

Most concerning, Next-Era has already begun hiring political lobbyists here, a strategy it relies on in Florida, where it spends millions on lobbying and political contributions. NextEra has been widely criticized by government watchdog groups for using that influence to successfully lobby to reduce state renewable energy standards and replace two public service commissioners who denied a rate increase that would benefit the utility.

We must carefully consider if this is the utility we want.

Whether the PUC approves the NextEra takeover or not, one thing is certain: Hawaii is finally having a serious conversation about transforming our utilities. I’ve heard from thousands who want four basic things: local accountability, lower prices, renewable energy, and the choice to generate their own power. If NextEra and HECO can’t deliver, there is another option: a publicly owned utility.

In dozens of cities around the country, local residents actually own their local utilities, many of which residents have taken back from shareholder-owned corporations like NextEra and HECO. Instead of being run by leaders elected by shareholders elsewhere, these publicly owned utilities are run by leaders elected by the people they serve. Because they are elected, utility leaders are accountable to the people, and when there are issues or utility projects that raise concerns, the public is heard and plans are often amended.

Publicly owned utilities have cheaper rates than shareholder-owned utilities. Data from the American Public Power Association shows that publicly owned utility bills were an average of 14 percent lower than shareholder-owned utility bills in 2013. Publicly owned utilities don’t need to make a profit for shareholders and don’t need to pay CEOs enormous salaries. Any profits they make can be returned directly to the people or invested in new technology to provide better services and lower costs.

Most of all, publicly owned utilities tend to more easily embrace new technology and adapt to the evolving energy landscape. They tend to have better customer satisfaction than shareholder-owned utilities because they focus on serving their local customers, rather than shareholders elsewhere.

At this pivotal moment in Hawaii, to ensure the best interests of the public we have an obligation to consider all utility options, including a transition to publicly owned utilities. One need only read the fine print below NextEra’s press statements to understand why:

“NextEra Energy and Hawaiian Electric Industries caution readers that any forward-looking statement is not a guarantee of future performance. … Such forward-looking statements include, but are not limited to, statements about the anticipated benefits of the proposed merger …”

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