The 2015 Maui Energy Conference saw more than 300 energy industry leaders from Hawaii, the Mainland and Japan exchanging ideas on how to better serve customers in today’s rapidly changing power generation and delivery environment.

In welcoming remarks, Mayor Alan Arakawa set out his goal for Maui County, which now gets 30 to 35 percent of its power from renewable energy sources, is to have 100 percent of its power generated by renewable sources. “It’s not just to save money,” he told conference attendees. “It is about freedom, self-sufficiency and sustainability.” In just a year, the cost of a barrel of oil has dropped from over $100 to around $50, Arakawa said. “These wild price swings are proof that as long as we import oil we are subject to forces beyond our control.”

Many of the conference attendees focused in on keynote addresses from Alan Oshima, President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Company, and Eric Gleason, President of NextEra Energy Hawaii. They discussed how the proposed $2.6 billion Hawaiian Electric Industries-NextEra merger could benefit Hawaii with more development of renewable power resources, lower customer bills and improved service reliability.

Gleason told conference attendees that the merger provides a “very exciting opportunity” for Hawaii to “get off the addiction to oil” by developing its “world-class renewable energy resources.” Because its size and experience in renewable power development, NextEra brings a lot to the table in a merger with HECO. NextEra “has a lot of buying power,” and it has a track record of delivering projects on time and on budget, he told conference attendees. Oshima explained that the merger “really makes sense for Hawaii” as the islands’ utilities strive to be leaders and early adopters of renewable energy technology and development of natural resources. By 2030, HECO aims to draw 65 percent of its energy on Oahu from renewable resources, triple distributed power and lower power bills by 20 percent. To do so, “we’ve reorganized how we look at things in the company,” Oshima said. No longer primarily driven by electrical engineers, HECO’s direction also is being guided by customer service and government relations advisers. “Change can be exciting. Change can be fun, and change is necessary,” he explained.

Oshima told the conference that HECO is looking at liquefied natural gas, also known as LNG, as a cleaner fuel and a more stable energy source. The cost of buying oil for power generation accounts for about 50 percent of a customer’s bill, while it had been as much as 70 percent in the past, according to HECO. HECO would like to see fuel be a more stable expense for utility customers, Oshima said. Hawaii’s effort to incorporate intermittent, renewable energy is a challenge that will be faced by utilities nationwide, eventually, Oshima predicted. “We are experiencing these issues earlier than anyone else,” he noted. HECO customers are demanding smart-grid services and grid modernization, and “we have to listen to our customers,” Oshima said, adding that HECO needs to go beyond implementing technology and, instead, be at the forefront of technology, being an early adapter.

Gleason told conference attendees that NextEra began a transformation from “highly dependent” oil power generation to renewable energy 30 years ago with its subsidiary, Florida Power & Light. The utility serves 4.7 million customers in Florida and supplies half of the state’s power. Since 2001, FP&L has reduced its annual oil consumption from 40 million barrels to around 200,000 barrels. The reduced dependence on oil for power generation has saved the utility $7.5 million annually, a savings passed on to consumers, according to Gleason. FP&L has the lowest power rates in Florida, he added. NextEra has shown that “you can drive down costs and improve reliability and make things cleaner, all at the same time,” he said.

Gleason pledged that NextEra is committed to learning how to do business well in Hawaii, including the establishment of a board of residents to advise NextEra on how to do business in the islands. He told conference attendees that NextEra would continue HECO’s tradition of charitable giving to support the community. Also, for at least two years, there would be no involuntary layoffs of HECO employees who will retain all current compensation and benefits, he said. NextEra has nearly 14,000 employees in 27 states and Canada, and it is the largest generator of wind and solar power in the North America.

On the second day of the conference, a summary of day one was delivered by Holly Benz, Vice President of the Schneider Corp. and a member of the conference’s program committee, and by Jonathan Koehn, also a program committee member who works as the Regional Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Boulder, Colo. “All eyes are on Hawaii,” Benz said, stressing how Hawaii is a “postcard from the future” because it is at the leading edge of learning how to make the transition from on-demand, oil-fired power generation to as-available renewable power sources. “There is a tremendous opportunity for Hawaii to lead, to test and to learn,” she said. Koehn saw a lot of diversity and passion in the conversations energy conference speakers and participants were having as the conference wrapped up. Benz applauded the strong positions leaders and policy makers were expressing, and she was impressed by the level of engagement they were taking given the magnitude of the challenges ahead.

A presentation led by Maui Economic Development Board President and CEO Jeanne Skog reported the results of “MPower Maui: An Energy Conversation.” The study involved 90-minute interviews with 435 people and confirmed much of what’s already been believed as far as local community sentiment about electricity and energy alternatives. High energy prices were a dominant concern, but MPower participants also wanted energy alternatives. Their goals have evolved from wanting safe, reliable and cheap energy to calling for safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally safe options. Participants also were outspoken about environmental health issues as well as ensuring equity and affordability.

The final day of the energy conference offered optional Maui sustainability tours to Kaheawa Wind Farm, hosted by SunEdison, and the Smart Grid Demonstration Project—JumpSMARTMaui, hosted by Hitachi Ltd.

Conference attendees had the opportunity to “join the conversation” by downloading the Maui Energy Conference “App” by Zerista Inc., Facebook or Twitter. The proceedings were videotaped by Akaku Community TV and will be available for later viewing at: The conference was hosted by the Maui Economic Development Board and the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development.