By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer
No more increases.
That seemed to be the main message relayed to members of the state Public Utilities Commission on Monday night by more than 100 Big Isle residents who showed up at a public hearing at the Hilo High cafeteria to weigh in on two separate electricity rate hikes proposed by Hawaii Electric Light Co. Inc.
“HELCO has come to expect whenever they ask for an increase they’re going to get it automatically rubber stamped,” said Mililani Trask, among some of the first of about 30 speakers scheduled to provide testimony concerning the first docket item to be discussed.
That request seeks approval of a biodiesel supply contract between the utility and Aina Koa Pono-Ka‘u LLC. Such a contract would necessitate a related biofuel surcharge for customers to offset the costs associated with production, transportation, and storage of the biodiesel, HELCO says. Consumers would be asked to pay between 84 cents and $1 extra per month for a typical bill.
HELCO touts the plan as an important step in its efforts to find alternative energy sources with which to generate electricity.
Aina Koa’s planned refinery in Ka‘u would supply HELCO with approximately 16 million gallons of biodiesel each year for 20 years to fuel its Keahole power plant. A similar supply contract was rejected by the PUC in September 2011 due to what regulators called the “excessive” high cost of the fuel.
While the companies have not released the agreed-upon price of the biofuel in the contract, HELCO claims that the biofuel is currently more expensive than oil, but that it will eventually be cheaper as oil prices rise. HELCO estimates its customers would end up saving about $500 million over the course of the contract.
A host of electricity consumers showed up wearing rubber slippers, with some bearing buttons reading “No Rate Increase,” signs of their solidarity in requesting that the PUC turn down HELCO’s requests.
“I think it’s nuts,” said Kurtistown farmer Jim Albertini of the rates currently paid by Hawaii Island residents. “We should be talking about decreases, not locking consumers into a 20-year contract.”
Albertini said HELCO’s profits are directly linked to its costs for providing power, likening the company’s rate structure to that of the military, where the tax payer can wind up “paying $500 for a toilet seat,” he said.
“The higher the cost, the higher the profit for them.”
Moani Keala Akaka agreed.
“Look at the highway robbery HELCO and others have been getting away with,” she said.
She added that while the exact cost per barrel HELCO would pay for the biodiesel has not been released, estimates are that the cost is somewhere around $200 a barrel.
“This is an unproven procedure,” she said. “It’s mindboggling. … We, the ratepayers and taxpayers should not have to subsidize this private corporation.”
Not everyone who spoke opposed the contract, however.
“I am in support of the production of biodiesel,” said Ka‘u resident John Cross, a former sugar cane grower.
He said plans for HELCO to partner with a biodiesel company would provide a much-needed injection of funds for the economically struggling area.
Hamakua landowner and farmer Steve Shropshire agreed that the contract should be considered, while saying he understands why many are in opposition.
“High electric bills are not something I personally am looking forward to,” he said. “But this is an investment in our future. … Sugar is gone. The king has left the building.”
In addition to testimony from customers, the PUC heard from Jeff Ono, executive director of the state Division of Consumer Advocacy. He reported that his organization has been charged with taking an independent look at the costs and to make a recommendation to the board.
“This docket will be given careful scrutiny,” he said.
The second request to be heard before the PUC Monday night was for approval of a 4.2 percent rate increase to generate an additional $19.8 million in revenue for HELCO. The company says the extra revenue is needed to fund maintenance for HELCO’s electric grid and system upgrades, as well as the inclusion of more renewable energy technologies. If the entire amount is approved, it would add $8.32 to a typical, 500-kilowatt-hour monthly electric bill.
Noelani Kalipi, a member of the Big Island Community Coalition, an informal group seeking lower electricity rates for Big Isle residents, said consumers here had been paying some of the highest rates in the country “for far too long.”
“Hawaii residents are having to make some hard decisions,” she said. “‘Do I pay my electricity bill, or do I feed my family?’”
Kalipi said she and other memers of the group had come to say “Enough is enough.”
John Callahan echoed those sentiments while injecting a little bit of humor into the proceedings.
“I’m saying here and now no increased rates. And I’m voting for a 50 percent decrease right now,” he said to laughter from the audience. “They’ve held us for years and years, and we have to say ‘No.’”
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.