HONOLULU (KHON2) — Electric bills on Oahu are going to jump because oil has to be used until more clean power sources are online. Relief options are out there, but some are ill-timed to help with bigger bills coming up in just weeks.
There’s no disagreement that bigger bills are ahead for Oahu electricity. So what can you do? Always Investigating looked at rebate, subsidy and delayed-payment options — and just using less if you can — and found some gaps, so start planning now.
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As Always Investigating first reported earlier this year, the 10 to 20 percent of Oahu’s power that once came from coal is about to cost a lot more. That’s because Hawaiian Electric needs to use much more expensive oil until delayed solar and battery projects are up and running. HECO finally revealed the official estimate 10 days ago: another $15 a month average hit on the pocketbook when folks can least afford one.
“Earlier this year, when HECO was kind of projecting how much each bill would cost, it was like $2 per bill more just to burn oil,” explained Public Utilities Commission Chairman Leo Asuncion Jr. “But because of the spike in fuel prices, that’s what we got today, the $15. So what is that seven times, eight times?”
So what help is out there? First, there’s been a big push for consumers to get solar, battery storage, or use Hawaii Energy rebates for more efficient products. Also, officials are telling people to just use less.
“It is important for customers to understand how their behavior can affect electricity consumption and the resulting bill and it is equally important to provide steps – both easy and hard – if adopted by families and businesses that can help reduce electricity consumption and reduce bills,” said Dean Nishina, the state’s consumer advocate.
But since we can’t unplug our way to zero, or may not have spare change to buy new appliances just to trigger a rebate, there are subsidy programs to help people pay those even bigger bills on this essential utility.
“OHA has a program, DHHL has a program for those homesteaders that have difficulty with their rent and utility payments,” Asuncion said, “even the Salvation Army has a program.”
OHA and DHHL applications are on pause, however. Same with the Honolulu county Rental and Utility Relief Program funded by COVID-era federal money.
Honolulu County had already given out about $500,000 just for utilities before the price spike. But the county closed applications a couple of months ago and won’t reopen until sometime later this year with an additional $31 million.
KHON2 asked why not open that up sooner since the bills are coming in weeks? The city told us there are still several thousand applications that were received before June 30 to be processed, and about $20 million left in the fund for those applicants.
“We know this is a difficult time for families,” the Office of Economic Revitalization said in a statement, “We will make sure the community has plenty of advance notice before a temporary reopening.”
“If there are other possible sources of funds that can be allocated to provide utility assistance to supplement the federal funds that facilitated the Rental and Utility Relief Program, that could mitigate the possibility of another moratorium on disconnections due to non-payment,” Nishina said.
State Sen. Kurt Fevella even wrote to the governor asking for a state of emergency, and in a related news release he pointed out big profits at the utility that he thinks could pitch in for relief.
The governor wrote back saying no emergency will be declared.
Fevella also wrote to HECO appealing for relief.
In a letter of response to Fevella late Thursday, HECO President Shelee Kimura pointed out how a recently implemented performance-based regulatory framework will eventually work out in consumers’ favor, writing: “Over 2022 and 2023, we will be giving back over $6 million (estimated based on our fuel price forecast for the remainder of the year) to customers as part of a regulated rate formula which benefits customers in times of high fuel prices. This is funded by the company, not ratepayers, and lessens the economic impact of the pandemic on our customers.”
A HECO spokesperson told KHON2 that no direct subsidies can come from them because “rates are set by the Public Utilities Commission.”
KHON2 asked the PUC chairman why HECO has to pass through the surcharge to ratepayers? Couldn’t the P.U.C. ask HECO to absorb some of it, too?
“We could, but we would have to go through a proceeding to do that, provide them their due response to that,” Asuncion said. “You’re looking at anywhere around probably six months to a year until you can decide.”
KHON2 asked: Why didn’t the powers do more about it six or eight months or even a year ago?
“I think there was that effort we went through, at least on Oahu, for RFPs to get more renewables online,” Asuncion said. “I’m hopeful that it’s turning around a bit, and that these projects can get in sooner than what is projected.”
So until we can ditch oil in favor of more price-stable renewable power there are limited options for immediate relief directly from the utility.
A spokesperson told KHON2: “Hawaiian Electric offers payment arrangements with longer and more flexible repayment terms than we have previously offered to customers who are having trouble staying current on their bills.” These payment plans are interest-free.
Below are links to the various relief options covered in this story:
Interest-free payment plan:
DHHL Utility Relief Program administered by CNHA (CNHA has temporarily halted accepting applications and will inform the public when the application portal reopens,)
Salvation Army community assistance
OHA Emergency Financial Assistance Program (application portal closed but ” OHA will be collecting contact information for all new interested applicants”)
Honolulu County Rental & Utility Relief Program (currently closed to applicants, reopening later this year)
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