Auditors couldn't figure out what this state office does — or plans to do

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Bureaucratic fat in government has become a punch line at this point.

But it's not exactly common to find an entire government office whose very existence is questioned.

Enter the state Energy Office. A new audit says it's not clear what the purpose of the agency is.

Actually, the state auditor was a little more harsh:

"The audit was to basically answer two questions.What does the state energy office do and how well do they do it. We weren't able to get straight answers to those very basic questions," state Auditor Les Kondo said.

"The Energy Office could not clearly articulate to us, neither through documented evidence nor verbally, how it has directly or indirectly contributed to the achievement of the state's clean energy goals."

The state Energy Office is charged with making Hawaii becoming 100 percent independent of fossil fuels by 2045. And while Hawaii is becoming a greener place, Kondo said it's not clear that any of the credit for that goes to the state Energy Office.

There's another problem, too: The office is burning through cash, and personnel costs now account for more than 90 percent of the agency's expenses.

"They are current spending $600,000 more than their current revenues. At their current level of spending they will eat through the energy security fund, which is their primary source of funding, by fiscal year 2019," Kondo said.

The audit cited this example of questionable spending. In 2014, the office spent $500,000 on a project called the Energy Excelerator, which assists clean technology start-ups in Hawaii.

But about a fifth of the half million was spent on travel to Silicon Valley.

"Paying the Energy Excelerator to go to California and not then not keeping track of what was the outcome of that, that just seems crazy since the Excelerator is rolling in money," said Henry Curtis, director of Life of the Land, who noted that the Excelerator received about $30 million from the U.S. Navy.

The 36-page state audit said it's vital that the State Energy Office articulate its goals and its progress, and "evaluate not only what role it should play, but what role it can play in the state's energy independence efforts."

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism agreed with parts of the audit, but said the contention that the office couldn't articulate its goals and progress is just wrong.

It also said the Energy Office is not running out of money because it's now funded by a special tax on each barrel of petroleum that's imported into Hawaii.

"The auditor's office has not acknowledged HSEO's contributions nor requested information specific to the Energy Office's contributions to its stated mandated," DBEDT said, in a written response to the audit.

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