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Scott Seu: Hawaiian Electric’s new CEO tackles isles’ clean-energy transition — and the coronavirus

  • JAMM AQUINO/JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                HECO president Scott Seu.

    JAMM AQUINO/JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    HECO president Scott Seu.

In an effort to maintain infrastructure-related stability as Hawaii grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. David Ige has directed all utilities to make certain that they can continue to operate in the normal course. And to help steady financially rocked households, utility providers are being asked to put on hold service shut-offs.

In the case of Hawaiian Electric, which provides critical energy services to 95% of the state’s population, Scott Seu, the utility’s new president and CEO, said, “We’re taking steps to ensure that we’ll continue to provide safe and reliable service.”

Further, any customer disconnection is suspended through April 17. Depending on how coming weeks unfold, the utility may extend the pause. In addition, even though providing electric service isn’t a “high touch” business requiring significant personal contact, Seu said, “We’re being proactive to keep our employees safe, healthy and on the job.”

Hawaiian Electric employees are working from home if their job allows it, and employee business travel is restricted. Also in the interest of addressing social-distancing concerns, walk-in payment centers are temporarily closed, and customers are being asked to conduct routine transactions online, by telephone or by using a drop box for bill payments.

“We recognize the anxiety and uncertainty of this situation and that many of our customers may be impacted. We’ll do our part to keep the lights on and to support our community through this challenging time,” Seu said.

An Oahu native, Seu is a Kamehameha Schools alum. “My time at Kamehameha really instilled in me a sense of duty to serve our community and our future generations.” Now, while raising two daughters with his wife, he said, “I’m reminded of this every day.”

After high school, Seu went on to earn degrees in mechanical engineering at Stanford University on an Air Force scholarship. “I thought I’d end up designing fighter jets because I loved aircraft,” he said. But Air Force budget cuts prompted a career redirection.

“I ended up becoming an environmental engineer in California. It’s what landed me my first job at Hawaiian Electric, as an environmental scientist focused on air pollution compliance and controls,” Seu said.

Since joining the utility in 1993, he said, “I’ve been fortunate to have had many different work experiences at Hawaiian Electric. What I enjoy most is the people side of the business and being part of a great team.”

Question: Clearly, coping with COVID-19 is an immediate priority. Among long-term goals, one is meeting the state’s 2045 deadline for 100% renewable energy. On that front, what do you see at the most daunting obstacle or challenge?

Answer: Harmonizing the many needs of our communities with what is needed to develop additional renewable energy resources across the islands.

For example, how will we balance the use of land for renewable energy production versus for local food production? How do we address the growing concerns of communities who feel that renewable energy infrastructure isn’t compatible with their neighborhoods? We cannot get to 100% renewable energy with only rooftop solar, so these discussions need to take place now. If we need to make course corrections, let’s decide on them sooner rather than later.

The other critical priority has to be the reliability and resilience of our energy system. We are doing incredible things with new technologies to modernize our energy system, but no matter what, the system has to be reliable and resilient to withstand natural and man-made hazards.

We are in a dynamic and unpredictable world, and we cannot take our eyes off what it takes to keep the lights on.

Q: Given the recent community push-back regarding wind projects, are you reluctant to move forward with more turbines?

A: We’re still looking at all available resources. We’re sensitive to community concerns and take these into consideration in planning procurements, but we’ll likely need to rely on all viable technologies, including utility-scale wind projects, to achieve the legislative mandate to reach 100% renewable energy.

To get this done, the entire state of Hawaii must work together and all options need to be on the table.

It’s important to have a diversity of resources, technologies and locations to build the most resilient island energy systems, always providing reliable power to our customers. …

Q: Meeting the state’s clean energy deadline will require a significant amount of land in addition to rooftops and other resources. That could be a tall order for Oahu — a 600-square mile island with more than 1 million people. What’s Hawaiian Electric’s strategy for addressing this issue?

A: First, we need a framework of laws and policies that guide the use of Hawaii’s limited land resources to achieve balance between competing interests. Goals and policies that are set for locally produced foods, affordable housing, setbacks and appropriate zoning between land uses, and of course, energy must align within this framework.

Second, we need be ready to capitalize on advances in technology that can allow for more renewable energy to be produced using less land. A good example is prototype solar panels with multiple layers that capture different wavelengths of sunlight, allowing a panel to produce almost twice the amount of energy as a traditional panel.

We also need our energy portfolio to include more energy-dense technologies, such as geothermal, which can generate more energy from a smaller land footprint. And last but not least, as a state, we need to find ways for renewable energy systems to be planned and developed in true partnership with communities. The way forward will have to put the community in front of the process.

Q: Hawaiian Electric is asking the state Public Utilities Commission to approve a 4.1% increase of the customer base rate for electricity use. Why?

A: We are required to file a rate case to the PUC every three years, to review how much it costs to plan, operate and maintain the electric system, and to set the rates we charge to our customers. It’s a rigorous process and the PUC will leave no stone unturned. We need to continue to invest in modernizing the electric system and to take care of the basics of operating and maintaining the plants and lines and poles and substations that get electricity to our customers.

Even with these requirements, I know that the cost of living in Hawaii is a huge issue and that’s why I’m focused on making sure our company is as efficient as it can be. For perspective, our last rate review was filed in 2016 and resulted in a decrease to customer rates, largely due to savings from federal tax law changes. Before 2016, Hawaiian Electric had not sought a base-rate increase in six years.

Q: Hawaiian Electric is enthusiastic about clean ground transportation, in part, because a large electric-vehicles inventory in the islands holds potential to help keep the grid stable. What’s the utility doing to encourage EV adoption?

A: Electric transportation provides multiple benefits. Not only does it attack fossil fuel use in transportation as we convert our electric system to renewable energy, but the more green energy that is used to charge EVs, the more we spread the fixed costs of the electric system, which helps lower electric rates for all customers.

We want everyone to have the option of clean transportation — not just with cars but with bikes, buses, trucks and, soon, rail. A key near-term focus is developing new rates and charging infrastructure for electric buses, including public, school and private fleets.

We’ll also continue to promote adoption of electric cars and light trucks with more public charging options, including our DC fast chargers, to provide the seven-fold increase in charging needed to meet projected 2030 demand. I really see an increased need for us to help get more public charging stations built across our islands.

Q: Do you drive an EV?

A: Not yet. I drive a Toyota Highlander, which as far as SUVs are concerned is pretty efficient, and this has served as our “large” family car for carting around my daughters, grandparents and large loads. I’m definitely shopping for an EV, though, and am excited at how every year, there are more options to choose from. I’m looking for one that fits my personality, which is pretty low-key and utilitarian.

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