PUC says Hawaiian Electric, NextEra ruling coming soon with draft decision in hand

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Will NextEra Energy be allowed to buy Hawaiian Electric?

That decision is in the hands of three people who are circulating a draft decision as we speak, according to the head of the Public Utilities Commission.

Chairman Randy Iwase told Always Investigating the final order is likely within weeks, and they’ve got a big part of the decision already in their hands.

A key item got turned in to the three deciding commissioners in early May, he revealed.

“There’s a staff report. Attached to that report is a proposed draft decision,” Iwase said.

A decision on whether Hawaiian Electric can be sold to mainland-based NextEra — a deal pending for more than a year and a half of regulatory review, public hearings, reams of filings, and impassioned pleas for and against the merger.

“Will you share the staff’s recommendation before the order?” Always Investigating asked.

“No,” Iwase replied.

“Why not?” we asked.

“The staff report is internal. It is attorney-client privilege. The attorneys are writing to us, the clients,” Iwase explained.

As for the actual decision, “everything will be in private,” Iwase said. “A commissioner could start off and say ‘I agree with everything,’ and therefore you add nothing, or you could say, ‘I want to make this amendment’ then you put it in red. We’re still looking at the first draft, so we know where each one is.”

Hawaiian Electric and NextEra had hoped for a final decision and order before a deadline in their agreement passed on June 3, after which either side could walk away by paying a substantial breakup fee north of $90 million.

“I’m hopeful before the end of June we will be able to sift through all of this and make a decision,” Iwase said. “The longer it sits, the more rumors fly around, crazy rumors.”

“Any truth to the rumor that they’re waiting out one of the commissioner’s terms on the 30th?” Always Investigating asked.

“No, and that’s one of the rumors flying around,” Iwase replied.

Hawaiian Electric and NextEra released a joint statement as June 3 passed saying they’re still wanting to move forward together.

Commissioners are weighing essentially two big questions: 1) whether the buyer is fit to acquire, and 2) is the deal in the public’s best interest?

“As one of the top performing utilities in the nation, there is no question whether they’re fit, willing and able,” said Mina Morita, former PUC chairwoman. “Where it gets kind of squishy and where there’s a lot of discretion left to the PUC are on questions of public interest. Is this in the public interest?”

A growing docket of public comment weighs in both for and against the merger, often circling on who can and how will Hawaii get a 100-percent renewable energy platform within decades.

There’s lots of backlash against LNG as a bridge fuel. Many don’t like the thought of losing control to a mainland company. Others say HECO needs help to evolve.

“I think Hawaiian Electric needs some assistance in that,” Morita said. “I don’t believe the culture is there to get us to what we desire in our energy transformation as quickly as we want to happen… without NextEra.”

“Those in favor of the merger may say, how is it in the interest of the public if the merger fails and HECO can’t afford to do all the things it has to do alone by 2045?” Always Investigating posed to Iwase.

“There was nothing in the hearing, for the record,” Iwase replied. “Two high officials in Hawaiian Electric, testifying at the hearing, said that they can move forward standing alone… even without NextEra.

“What you have is Hawaiian Electric moving along in their car and along comes a big car saying, ‘We want to buy your car and you come along with us,'” Iwase added. “The question is, can that car still travel the road, the smaller car? And the answer they gave us was yes, it can.”

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