Hawai‘i Rejects a Billion-Dollar Power Play

Hawai‘i’s Public Utilities Commission recently rejected the $4.3 billion sale of the state’s main utility company to out-of-state profiteers.

Earthjustice Managing Attorney Isaac Moriwake surveys rooftop solar
Earthjustice managing attorney Isaac Moriwake stands on his O‘ahu rooftop, which has been retrofitted with solar panels. In 2016, Hawai‘i’s Public Utilities Commission rejected the $4.3 billion sale of the state’s main utility company to out-of-state profiteers. (Matt Mallams for Earthjustice)

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As public-interest environmental lawyers at Earthjustice, we’ve gone up against our share of billion-dollar companies that don’t have the best interests of the environment and planet at heart. While we count on the power of justice to overcome their almighty dollars, every so often, we win a victory so big, so fulfilling, so right, because it brings together years of hard work and opens up opportunities and hope for the future.

July 15 was one of those days. That was when our team—including associate attorney Kylie Wager, litigation assistant Julie Parks, community organizers Stanley Chang and Rebecca Soon, and me—got the news that Hawai‘i’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had rejected the $4.3 billion sale of HECO, Hawai‘i’s main utility, to Florida-based NextEra Energy.

That utility takeover would have been the biggest business deal in Hawai‘i’s history, and also the biggest threat to Hawai‘i’s energy future. Less than a decade ago, the state was stuck burning imported oil for more than 90 percent of its electric power. This fossil fuel dependency saddled consumers with the highest electric rates in the nation, but it also helped spark a clean energy revolution. Now, almost 1 in 5 HECO customers gets their energy from rooftop solar—straight from the sun. This momentum recently inspired Hawai‘i to adopt the ambitious goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

Then came NextEra, whose utility business, Florida Power & Light, is notorious for gutting energy efficiency goals, fighting rooftop solar, investing in gas fracking ventures and massive gas and nuclear plants, and resorting to political muscle to get its way. Just when rooftop solar was opening the door to new clean energy markets and consumer choices, NextEra sought to take us back to the top-down, fossil-fueled monopoly of the past.

As the centerpiece of the takeover deal, the utilities proposed a huge, $1 billion-plus conversion of their generation system to liquefied natural gas (LNG), boasting NextEra’s experience as the nation’s largest utility consumer of gas.  This LNG scheme would have locked Hawai‘i into burning yet another fossil fuel for decades or longer.

With Hawai‘i seen as a clean energy leader and “postcard from the future,” all eyes were watching, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Earthjustice intervened in this PUC “case of the century” on behalf of the Sierra Club, opposing the takeover because of NextEra’s Florida track record and its failure to chart a different path for Hawai‘i.

We joined a wave of opposition throughout the state, which included Governor David Ige and state and county legislators led by Representative Chris Lee—along with practically the entire Hawai‘i energy community. Like the governor, many saw the need for a new clean energy model, rather than a bigger utility monopoly.

An overwhelming majority of the public also opposed the deal, and their numbers only grew over time. Kapua Keli‘ikoa-Kamai, for example, stood up against the LNG plans because she and her family live on the west side of O‘ahu, where the utilities proposed to build a new gas-fired power plant. University of Hawai‘i students Kristen Jamieson, the school’s sustainability coordinator, and Jeff Kim, chapter leader of Citizen’s Climate Lobby Honolulu, mobilized fellow students to testify against the takeover at public hearings. Many others took a stand before the PUC and in public forums, which included hearings on every island, a 22-day administrative trial and months of media coverage and commentary.

Despite such widespread opposition, rejection of the takeover was far from certain.  The corporate world tends to view such deals as a fact of life, and the acquiring companies often essentially buy the approval of government and the public with millions of dollars in propaganda and deal sweeteners. Thus, even as the case went downhill for the utilities—for example, with the “SnackGate” incident, when an email uncovered in the trial revealed that NextEra saw the takeover as a “snack on the way to their desired buffet luncheon to acquire other regulated utilities”—analysts were still predicting that the takeover would be approved.

That’s why the July 15 victory—one of only a handful of rejections in the decades-long history of utility mergers—truly made history. In a remarkable show of solidarity, Hawai‘i demonstrated its commitment to a clean energy transformation.  The power of the almighty dollar—$4.3 billion of them—could not overcome the power of the people.

The takeover rejection, however, is just the beginning of our work to build a new clean energy system. The proposed takeover galvanized the people of Hawai‘i and spurred discussion of alternatives to traditional utilities. The Hawai‘i state legislature just allocated $1.2 million to investigate such alternatives, including publicly owned utilities and independent grid operators, which may help avoid the inherent conflict when investor-owned utilities favor their profits above the public interest.

Time will tell whether this case was a turning point on the road to a renewable energy revolution. In the meantime, Hawai‘i is charting new paths for the nation and world.  Earthjustice has stayed the course in the region for years and throughout this case, and we remain committed to realizing a 100 percent clean energy future.

The managing attorney of the Mid-Pacific Office in Honolulu, Isaac has extensive experience litigating before federal and state courts and agencies on a range of issues, including water rights, Native Hawaiian rights, shoreline protection, endangered species, environmental health and disclosure, and clean energy.

Kylie Wager Cruz is a senior attorney with the Mid-Pacific regional office in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Kylie has represented community groups in a wide variety of proceedings to promote clean energy and clean water, end the use of fossil fuels, protect Native Hawaiian communities disproportionately burdened by pesticide exposure, safeguard Hawai‘i’s native and threatened wildlife, and restore streamflows.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.