How well do you know your Public Utilities Commission?

How well do you know your Public Utilities Commission?

Samson Kaala Reiny

HONOLULU—Last week, a decision was made to tentatively allow Hawaiian Electric Co. to charge customers 2.2 percent more, or about $3.31 per month for the average customer.

The Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the rate hike, actually reducing HECO’s intended 6.6 percent rate hike.

The commission has the authority to break the barriers that prevent Hawaii from a sustainable future. PUC members are responsible for decisions that directly affect all Hawaii’s people.

And yet, it’s interesting how something as vital as the PUC remains a relatively unknown entity for many Hawaii residents. The PUC has broad oversight over the electricity that powers our lights and televisions, the barges that transport our goods to and from other islands, the gas that fires our stove-tops, private transportation services, and telephone carriers.

Appointed by the governor and funded by the State Department of Budget and Finance, three commissioners form the decision-making body and serve staggered six-year terms. The chair is currently Hermina Morita; Carlito Caliboso and John Cole fill the remaining two seats.

One of their more important functions is to regulate these public service industries, which tend to acquire natural monopolies, and prevent abuses against consumers.

Whether investigating whether Young Brothers’ request for a fuel surcharge on its inter-island shipping services coincides with the prevailing gas prices or probing price discrepancies with private on-island transportation companies, the commission’s role is to see that customers are not being forced into paying artificially inflated costs.

In the gasoline industry, one of the PUC’s main duties is to determine its “maximum pre-tax wholesale price” on a weekly basis.

Regarding the controversial Lanai and Molokai wind farm proposal, with its many twists and burns (as in, getting burned, just ask First Wind), the commission must balance several factors—including its responsibility to push the development of renewable energy sources by the State’s given deadlines. The PUC must to ensure a fare process and competitive procurement practices in working with other companies that provide the alternative energy resource. (Please see the Lanai and Molokai Wind topic page for all our curated stories.) The PUC also has oversight over both the cost and implementation of solar and geothermal energy sources.

Along with ocean shipping and electric costs, the commission can also regulate water and land transportation prices, and, for all of the aforementioned, make investigative inquiries and serve as a quasi-judicial body that can either approve or mandate price changes. The State office of Consumer Advocacy may opine in the public’s interest and also helps customers contest any price increase or report a safety hazard or deficiency in service. The commission can exact changes in safety operations, and, in the case that a water or sewage utility company is failing to provide adequate service to customers, appoint a qualified receiver who can bring the utility up to functioning standards.

In its monitoring of telecommunications, the PUC assures that the hearing and speech impaired have adequate technologies to assist them with telephone calls and that the elderly and disabled on limited budgets be able to afford making “lifeline” calls. The agency also oversees that phone companies are justly compensated for costs associated with supporting the emergency call system.   

Next month, the PUC will be meeting to discuss two important cases: one involving Young Brothers’s intent to raise shipping rates (Docket 2010-0171) and another dealing with a controversial biodiesel supply contract involving HECO (Docket 2011-0005). 

One way to steering Hawaii on its path to an energy efficient future is to be informed about what’s happening at the PUC and speak out on decisions you support, or don’t support.

For a calendar of the Public Utilities Commission hearing notices, click here