KAPAA — All eyes and ears in the standing-room-only audience were centered on the 11 candidates seated at the front.
Some of the candidates were business owners, some were past company executives, and others were Kauai Island Utility Cooperative ratepayers who felt dissatisfied with the energy provider’s current direction.
But what each had in common Saturday during a candidate’s forum at Kapaa Public Library was a united mission to vie for three seats on the co-op’s nine-member board of directors.
Many of the candidates were united on several topics, including the need to move the 25,505-member co-op forward through a continued push for renewable energy.
What differed, in some cases, is how that vision should be carried out.
One point of division was the role the board of directors and members should play within the utility provider.
Stewart “Stu” Burley, a former KIUC board member, said the board of directors should run the business but take their directions from ratepayers
“What I see as lacking sometimes here is that the decisions of the board don’t always get back to the members,” Burley told the crowd of 75 people at the event hosted by the Wailua-Kapaa Neighborhood Association and Apollo Kauai. “It has to be a two-way street. The board listens to the members, and hopefully, the members listen to the board, which runs the business.”
Kapaa resident Adam Asquith, a smart meter opponent, and James “Jimmy” Trujillo, president of the Kauai Beekeepers Association, said members should have a larger role in the current process.
“I think the ability for members to call into question board actions is absolutely critical as a part of the checks and balances that are demanded under our bylaws,” Asquith said. “Even if you trusted me enough to elect me, if I went sideways and did something that you thought was wacko, you better call me on it — I expect you to. Fortunately, we have written into our bylaws the ability to do that and we should exercise it.”
Incumbent Teofilo “Phil” Tacbian said parliamentary law stipulates that members are responsible for the bylaws, articles of incorporation and electing the board of directors. The board of directors, in turn, manages the company on their behalf, he said.
Fellow incumbent, Peter Yukimura, agreed and said the board has been repeatedly criticized over the years for not communicating as much as they could with members.
“Over the last nine years, I think we did a lot more communication than a lot of organizations,” said Yukimura, who pointed out that the co-op uses its Currents magazine, social media accounts, community meetings and board email accounts to reach out to members. “If you have suggestions, please let us know, because I can’t think of anything more.”
Instead of holding public meetings in the middle of the day when many people are working, Kapaa resident Jonathan “JJ” Jay, a smart meter opponent, said the board should videotape their meetings and make more complete meeting minutes available for public inspection.
“It’s very difficult for hard working people on island to get involved, get informed and engage in the process and I think KIUC needs to do a much better job of outreach in terms of engaging, informing and empowering members,” Jay said.
Charles “Chuck” Lasker, Kalaheo resident and owner of Social Kauai, agreed and said he would like to make the co-op’s meeting minutes more readable and accessible.
A matter of rates
David Iha, a board incumbent; Daniel Erickson, a Kauai Community College faculty member; Lasker, Tacbian and Yukimura, said KIUC should continue to consider a time-of-use rate structure, which encourages energy use during off-peak hours when more energy can be produced.
“I think that if we were to have solar panels provide the energy during the day and another source at night that would be able to produce cheaper renewable energy, I think it would be more of a wholesome system … and keep rates down across the whole cooperative instead of having people be home during the day when energy is the cheapest,” Erickson said.
But Kilauea resident Neal Chantara, Trujillo, Burley and Jay disagreed and said they would like to look at other options.
“This should be one of those issues that the membership gets a chance to weigh in on in a significant way,” said Trujillo, who voiced his support for a stepped rate structure in which based on their energy use.
Addressing equability, however, is not easy, said D.Q. Jackson, former executive director of Malama Pono Health Services.
“Equity is a very nice concept,” said Jackson, who pointed out that more community dialogue must take place before moving forward. “I’m not sure if we’ll be able to make everything equal for everybody all the way around.”
But there are challenges, too, Tacbian said.
The co-op’s isolated location, away from off-island energy sources, and the need to maintain 1,700 miles of power lines makes KIUC’s rates one of the highest in the nation, he explained.
“We don’t have the benefit of having a lot of people on the line, so the costs of generating energy and all of that is spread out among a less amount of people,” Tacbian said. “In Honolulu, they can spread it across many, many people, and Maui is twice the size of us and so is the Big Island.”
A future power grab
There was, however, one area that many candidates agreed on: the need for renewable energy as a future energy source.
And one option, in particular, gained a large amount of support from a majority of the candidates: hydropower, which produces energy through the gravitational force of falling or flowing water.
“Water is a valuable resource,” candidate David Iha said. “There are a lot of rules and regulations governing water, but we’re still pursuing that and we need to pursue it even quicker when bonds are at their lowest rates so we can build it.”
Another area that, some say, should also be considered is biomass, where energy is produced through the burning of combustible materials, such as plants or municipal waste.
Chantara said the KIUC board should also explore a variety of creative options to increase the co-op’s renewable energy goals, including the use of smart micro-grids, which generate, distribute and regulate the flow of electricity to consumers on a more local level.
“There are a lot of distributed energy resources that we can use,” Chantara said.
But reaching the cooperative’s renewable energy goals, Lasker opined, is a long-term battle that cannot solved overnight.
“The reality is that we can get to 100 percent in a couple of years, if everyone was willing to pay $10,000 a month, so there needs to be a balance that has to be looked as far as moving toward renewable energy but also keeping the rates as low as possible,” Lasker said. “We want lower rates and renewable energy but it’s hard to do both right now. We have to be, as a board, responsible to move efficiently as possible to make sure that we don’t invest in something where rates go way up.”
The smart question
There was also some unity on the continued need to incorporate smart grid technology, which gathers analog or digital information, such as the behaviors of suppliers and consumers, to improve KIUC’s energy distribution system.
At issue, however, for some candidates is the co-op’s need for smart meters to fulfill that purpose.
Asquith, Jay and Trujillo spoke in favor of smart grid technology but against the implementation of smart meters.
Burley, Yukimura and Iha, however, disagreed and said the smart meters are a key component to KIUC’s smart grid goals.
There was also a deep division in the cooperative’s decision to institute opt-out fees for ratepayers who chose to not have a smart meter installed at their home or business.
When asked whether they opposed they way KIUC launched a media campaign urging members to vote in favor of the fees in the special election, only Chantara, Asquith, Jay and Trujillo raised their hands.