KLMA in the News
Column: Henry Curtis Has Been A ‘Thorn In The Side’ Of Developers And Power Company Execs For 30 Years
by Paula Dobbyn, on Henry Curtis, member of Ka Lei Maile Aliʻi
Original column published 03/26/2023 in Civil Beat
The inside baseball of energy policy goes way over the heads of most people. In-the-weeds details about microgrids, transmission lines, tariffs, grid stability, fuel supply and price volatility can lull even the most chronic insomniacs to sleep. But for Henry Curtis, energy policy minutia has the opposite effect. It’s energizing and happily keeps him up at night, pouring over regulatory filings, drafting legal motions and writing his energy-focused blog.
Curtis is the longtime executive director of Life of the Land, an environmental and community action group founded in 1970. Its mission is to advocate for Hawaii’s people and environment by advancing sound energy and land-use policies and open, transparent government. Litigation is one of its tools. Over the decades Life of Land has won a slew of major policy cases, including one earlier this month where the Hawaii Supreme Court blocked the Hu Honua bioenergy project from operating on the Big Island, a case that resulted in large part because of Curtis’ efforts.
During his tenure leading Life of the Land, Curtis has played a critical role in everything from halting an unpopular transmission line from being built atop a scenic ridge in Honolulu to joining community groups in stopping wind farms on Lanai and Molokai. Curtis claims at least 12 major energy victories and numerous others outside the energy industry since he came onboard. An economics nerd and policy wonk, Curtis, 70, is considered an elder statesman of Hawaii’s environmental community. Viewing energy through a social justice lens, Curtis lives and breathes all-things energy, especially matters that go before the Legislature or the Public Utilities Commission. The three-member PUC is an obscure but highly influential body that decides what can and can’t be done as far as power, telecommunications and transportation matters in Hawaii.
Although most people will never set foot inside PUC offices in downtown Honolulu or even attend a hearing online, the commission’s work touches virtually every Hawaii resident in one form or another. Whether it’s the cost of monthly electric bills, the price of goods brought to Hawaii on PUC-regulated barges or access to broadband internet across the islands, the PUC likely has a hand in it. Curtis has made it his mission to hawkishly observe the commission with laser-like focus and, when necessary, to dive into the murky depths of the PUC’s quasi-judicial regulatory process.
He is a frequent intervenor. He testifies or submits public comments and frequently challenges PUC decisions with the help of attorneys who often act pro bono or for reduced fees. Sometimes he drafts motions and briefs himself, despite not having a law degree or any formal legal training. Since joining Life of the Land nearly three decades ago, Curtis has sought to intervene in over 100 regulatory proceedings. The PUC has let the group play a formal role in 60 cases.
Jennifer Potter remembers meeting Curtis shortly after she started as a PUC commissioner in July 2018. Curtis was representing environmental stakeholders during a performance-based regulatory proceeding. Performance-based regulations are a portfolio of incentives that reward utilities for meeting renewable energy targets, lowering costs for ratepayers and improving customer services.
As expected, Curtis had a lot to say at the PUC proceeding. He listened closely and interjected with tough questions, Potter recalled. “I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Potter, who left the PUC in October and now works for a consulting company directing regulatory innovation. A New York City native, Curtis is known for his take-no-prisoners style. He eschews small talk and gets to his point quickly. After adjusting to Curtis’ bluntness, Potter said she quickly came to realize how important it was to have his voice in the room, even if his frequent lawsuits and stridency felt a bit like a “thorn in the side.” “He challenged us. He stretched the way we thought of the constitution, the way we thought about statute, the way we considered what was in the public interest in a way that I don’t think we had conventionally done before,” Potter said.
Curtis has long focused on advancing Hawaii’s transition away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy future. To force the PUC to move utilities in that direction, Curtis used the Hawaii state constitution as his North Star. To Potter’s knowledge, no one had really done that before. The state constitution guarantees citizens the right to a clean and healthy environment. Curtis has used the constitution’s mandates for conservation and protection of Hawaii’s natural resources to prod the PUC into considering air pollution during its decision-making. He did this during a 2017 rate case involving Hawaii Gas, a strategy Potter found innovative. A rate case is where a utility presents arguments to the PUC for why it needs to adjust – usually raise – the prices it charges customers. “He argued that we hadn’t thoroughly evaluated the greenhouse gas emissions from the line extensions which was weird because he did it in a rate case,” Potter said. “We never had evaluated greenhouse gas emissions in a rate case.” Curtis appealed the PUC’s decision in the gas case to the Hawaii Supreme Court in 2019 and won the next year, with justices remanding the matter back to the PUC to address greenhouse gas emissions and to fulfill its constitutional obligations.
The oldest of four children, Curtis was born in New York City and raised in the suburbs north of Manhattan.His mother had been an English major while his father had a doctorate in math and worked for IBM designing computer languages. While brainy and intrigued by math and economics as a kid, Curtis was also drawn in by nature and science, which continues to this day.“I’m fascinated by everything,” he said. As he grew older Curtis honed his interests, centering them on energy, science — “deep green environmentalism,” as he describes it — and justice and government policy, he said.
He graduated from Queens College in New York with a bachelor’s in economics. Curtis got his start in Hawaii in 1991, working for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Four years later, he joined Life of the Land — first as a board member, then in 1995 as its executive director. He had previously worked in California doing community organizing around pesticides and other issues. When the U.S. PIRG office closed in Hawaii, he briefly returned to California. But as the plane was taking off from Honolulu, Curtis said he felt an “intense pull.” He knew he was meant to stay in Hawaii.
Soon after starting with Life of the Land, Curtis received an employment application from a woman he would end up hiring. Not only did Bronx-born Kat Brady become his employee, but she also became his muse. Their romantic and professional relationship endures to this day. “We have great respect for each other,” said Brady, who in addition to consulting for Life of the Land also coordinates the Community Alliance on Prisons which advocates for prison reform and the rights of incarcerated people.
The two live in a modest rental house behind a gated mansion on Pali Highway. Fruits and vegetables fill their backyard garden. An outdoor meditation nook lies off their lanai, shaded by lush vegetation and tropical flowers.They live a simple life. She’s a pescatarian who likes to cook. He’s vegetarian. As independent contractors, Curtis and Brady receive none of the standard benefits of full-time employment like health care, retirement accounts, paid sick leave or vacation.
Life of the Land operates on what Brady calls a shoestring budget that comes mostly from community donations. They seem happy with their borderline spartan lifestyle.
“I don’t care about money,” said Brady. “The issues always lead.” They often start their day at 5 a.m. with a smoothie made with fresh ingredients from their fruit trees. They read The New York Times, The Guardian and Science. Afterwards, Curtis starts figuring out what he’ll write for his blog, Iliani Media. “I wake up with a passion to write,” Curtis said. Several energy insiders interviewed for this story said they read the blog but didn’t want to go on the record admitting it.
“His blog is priceless,” said Potter. After their smoothies and news catch-up, Curtis and Brady sit down and start working, usually researching, preparing testimony or filings, or talking with community members on issues that go beyond energy. Life of the Land has its hand in promoting sustainable agriculture, affordable housing, and government accountability and transparency. Both describe themselves as positive-minded individuals who push each other to do their best work. “We are driven individuals who are optimists, who are our strongest self-critics, and our other-person critics,” Curtis said. “I challenge everything I say and Kat challenges everything I say and vice versa.”
While his passion for fighting for a clean environment and consumer-friendly energy hasn’t faded, Curtis has shed some of his earlier harshness, a number of people interviewed for this story said. Several Supreme Court wins will do that. “As he got his legs under him and became more seasoned, he modified his approach,” said Gregg Kinkley, a retired deputy attorney general, former Consumer Advocate and former PUC commissioner. The “stodgiest elements of the energy industry tended to discount” Curtis in the early days because he was saying things they didn’t want to hear, according to Kinkley. They saw him as a gadfly. But after Curtis started notching up legal victories, they began taking him seriously and listening to his arguments.
Curtis started listening more too. He stopped trying to shame people into doing the right thing and began taking a more collaborative approach to settling disputes. Hawaiian Electric and Life of the Land have fought several intense battles over the years. But even the utility’s leadership expresses a degree of respect for Curtis. “He listens. He’s respectful. He has a sense of humor,” said Joe Viola, senior vice president of legal, regulatory and customer service at Hawaiian Electric. Curtis plays by the rules and is a unique person, he added.
“There’s only one Henry and it takes persistence to follow these dockets through,” Viola said. Others who have gone head-to-head with Curtis echo those sentiments. “His heart was always in the right place. I even liked Henry when I was Consumer Advocate when his portfolio was essentially to make my life miserable,” Kinkley said.
One of Curtis’ hardest-fought wins came just recently. Earlier this month, the Hawaii Supreme Court killed a controversial biomass project proposed for the Big Island. The court rendered a 5-0 decision to deny a power purchase agreement between Hu Honua and Hawaiian Electric, a ruling that arguably resulted in large part from Curtis’ efforts. “The only thing that stopped Hu Honua from going forward was that Henry appealed,” said attorney Lance Collins, who represented Life of the Land in two earlier chapters of litigation involving the tree-burning plant.
Curtis had fought for over a decade to keep Hu Honua from operating. His major concern was the estimated 8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions that the plant would emit over the course of a 30-year contract. Neither he nor the PUC were convinced by the company’s plans to sequester carbon through reforestation. Curtis also repeatedly pointed out that the $11 per month price hike that Hu Honua’s energy would add to ratepayers’ bills was unjustifiable when cheaper and cleaner alternative sources of energy exist or are coming online. Curtis was elated when the Supreme Court decision landed a day after he became a septuagenarian. “It was a birthday gift,” he said.
Hu Honua President Warren Lee did not respond to a message seeking his thoughts about Curtis. Consumer Advocate Dean Nishina declined an interview request. Marco Mangelsdorf, a solar energy entrepreneur on the Big Island, said Hu Honua’s highly litigious legal team clearly met its match with Curtis. “There’s a dogged persistence with Henry that is seemingly as relentless as Hu Honua,” Mangelsdorf said. Fearlessness is another personality feature that defines Curtis, Brady said. She includes herself in that too. “When you try to scare us, it’s at your own peril,” she said. Curtis said he has no plans to retire anytime soon. That’s no surprise to anyone who knows him.
“Henry is a crusader. He’s fighting for a cause,” Mangelsdorf said. “The fact that Henry at his venerable age is still playing that role shows the breadth and depths of the embers that propel him. Many crusaders burn out a lot earlier than age 70.”
Column: State fails at inmate rehabilitation
by Kat Brady, member of Ka Lei Maile Aliʻi
Original editorial published 12/5/2018 in the Star Advertiser
The Waikiki Health Center’s successful Pu‘uhonua Program had planned to help 480 formerly incarcerated persons between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2018. Instead, 970 went through the program and out of those 970, 94 formerly incarcerated persons — or fewer than 10 percent — have gone back to jail or prison. And those 94 people were reincarcerated for violations of their terms of parole or probation, not for committing new crimes (“Program prevents former inmates from becoming homeless,” Star-Advertiser, Nov. 26).
In 2007, the state Legislature passed The Community Safety Act — Hawaii’s Reentry Law, and it became Chapter 353 (H) in the Hawaii Revised Statutes over Gov. Linda Lingle’s objection.
Sadly, 11 years later, the Department of Public Safety has done little to nothing to help people exiting incarceration reintegrate into the community. Oh yes, it did establish a reentry office, but the main focus has proven to be in building up the staff, not in providing support for the people leaving its facilities to reenter the community.
A simple thing like ensuring that people leave with the proper documents to start their lives — a law that finally passed in 2016 — is still not happening. Upon release, people who have been incarcerated are left to fend for themselves, sometimes in a world quite different than the one they lived in before being incarcerated. Certain legislators have bragged about the passage of this law, but in reality, people are still leaving facilities with no documentation today. This is nothing short of shameful.
If Hawaii truly cared about reducing recidivism and giving people second chances, the state would have embraced Act 8 (2007)/ Chapter 353 (H) over the 11 years since its passage.
That this has not happened sends a disturbing message from our executive branch, which seems to be more interested in increasing the number of government employees than in helping the community.
Now the state is proposing to build medium-security facilities in all four counties, despite the fact that more than 72 percent of all people incarcerated by the state are serving sentences here and abroad for the lowest felonies, misdemeanors, violations, petty misdemeanors, and parole and probation violations — mostly fueled by substance use disorders and other public health and social challenges. This begs the question: Why doesn’t the executive branch care? Is this deliberate indifference, lack of leadership, or gross incompetence?
As taxpayers, we should all be concerned that an executive branch agency with an annual budget of a quarter of a billion dollars has not done in 11 years what has been done in one year by a program staffed by a caring community: the successful Pu‘uhonua Program.
There are solutions and the HCR 85 Correctional Reform Task Force has developed a framework that focuses on rehabilitation using Hawaiian values, such as malama kekahi i kekahi — taking care of one another.
Congratulations to “Aunty Fran” Dudoit-Tagupa and her team and the Waikiki Health center’s Pu‘uhonua Program: they demonstrate how a program that is staffed by people who truly care and want to make a difference in our community can make things work.