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Public Utilities Commission tackles energy equity with new docket

Savannah Harriman-Pote

The Hawaiʻi Public Utilities Commission is requesting public input on how the state's energy system can be more equitable.

A new docket seeks to define energy equity and integrate energy justice practices into the commission's proceedings.

But a workable definition for energy equity can be a difficult thing to nail down.

"I think our nation is going through this transformation. And we aren't the only state struggling with coming up with definitions," said Stephany Vaioleti. She's the community engagement navigator for Hawaiʻi Energy, which contracts with the commission on energy efficiency programs throughout the state.

FILE - In this 2016 photo, an installer for RevoluSun works on a solar panel installation on a roof in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz)
Cathy Bussewitz/AP
FILE - In this 2016 photo, an installer for RevoluSun works on a solar panel installation on a roof in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Cathy Bussewitz)

Hawaiʻi Energy is also one of the stakeholders in a hui that's been working for the last two years to come up with a definition for energy equity.

Vaioleti said there's a growing consensus that the state needs to shift its focus to folks that have been left behind in the renewable energy transition.

"Example, rooftop solar," Vaioleti said. "The systems are expensive, and even though Hawaiʻi has a higher percentage than most states for participation in rooftop solar, those are the families who could participate in being able to purchase those systems."

Vaioleti said one equity measure would be a more targeted approach to make solar energy affordable to low-income households.

Equity across different neighborhoods

Energy inequity doesn't just affect individual households. It can also shape the landscape of an entire neighborhood.

"Many communities often point to the disparity between Hawaiʻi Kai, where there are no overhead lines," said Dean Nishina, acting executive director for the state Division of Consumer Advocacy. "Basically the distribution and transmission lines are built underground, whereas you go to other communities and those lines still remain overhead."

Nishina said that his division has raised equity issues in a number of the commission's proceedings over the years. He hopes this new docket will allow community members to bring those issues to the forefront.

While he's "cautiously optimistic" about what the docket can achieve, Nishina wants the commission to prioritize certain goals, like affordability, as electricity rates increase.

"I am concerned that given the scope of the docket, this could be a docket that will be open for a while," Nishina said.

To alleviate the immediate energy burden on residents, Nishina would like to see a state fund established to assist energy customers with their electricity bills.

"The concern is that there's this divide that's growing between the haves and the have-nots," Nishina said. "So we've been trying to introduce this notion of equity as it relates to affordability, but also as it relates to where some of these projects are going."

Encouraging community feedback at the PUC

Increased community input on the placement of new renewable energy projects is a top priority for several stakeholders involved in the equity docket.

Attorney Ryan Hurley is representing the Kahuku Community Association in the energy equity docket. He described the docket's public meeting this week as "a full-circle moment."

"Three years ago, we were in that very room when the commission ruled against Life of the Land's motion for reconsideration regarding the Nā Pua Makani wind farm," Hurley said.

Hurley served as an attorney for the commission from October 2013 to November 2014. He said he couldn't imagine the commission opening an equity docket a decade ago, and he hopes it signals a real move towards a more just energy system.

renewable energy
Caleb Jones/AP
FILE - Windmills and solar panels are shown in Kahuku, Hawaiʻi on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

But Hurley said there are still several obstacles to widespread community participation in the commission's proceedings.

"It's very, very challenging for community groups to get involved in the regulatory realm, especially at the Public Utilities Commission," Hurley said.

"For the first hundred years of public utilities in America, you had these traditional, vertically-integrated utilities that just did their thing and kept rates low," Hurley told HPR. "But as we transition to renewable energy, which takes up a lot more space in fossil fuel infrastructure, we realize a community has to be involved. One of the things that I hope that the commission and others are realizing is that the commission's rules don't really encourage involvement from the community."

The commission said it "will test new methods of public participation" to encourage input on the public equity docket. It has posted its meetings related to the docket online, and anyone can provide commentat any time.

Energy equity between the islands

In proceedings last week, Maui County Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez challenged the commission to go a step further and present on the equity docket in front of her Efficiency Solutions and Circular Systems Committee for Maui County constituents.

Rawlins-Fernandez said that as a Molokaʻi resident, expanding access to important proceedings to the neighbor islands is always top of mind.

Since it can cost hundreds of dollars for a neighbor island resident to travel to the commission's headquarters in Honolulu, Rawlins-Fernandez also supports calls for the commission to hold meetings across the state.

"Getting into the community is always a good way to get more people involved, educated, informed, engaged, bringing their ideas," Rawlins-Fernandez said.

Rawlins-Fernandez hopes to see more investment in community-owned energy as a pathway for energy equity. She said the docket is "long overdue."

"Like with anything, the first step in resolving a problem is acknowledging that there's a problem," Rawlins-Fernandez said. "And I think the creation of this energy equity docket is that acknowledgment that there is an energy injustice problem."

The Public Utilities Commission is still a long way off from taking concrete action on equity measures in this docket. But Rawlins-Fernandez said the time to act is now if folks want a role in determining Hawaiʻi's future.

"I look at it the way I look at life. It's what you make of it," she added. "And so I really want to make the most of this energy equity docket, and I really encourage everyone else to do so as well."

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's "This Is Our Hawaiʻi" podcast. Contact her at sharrimanpote@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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