Hawaiian Electric, one of the leading energy companies in Hawaii, has been accused of overlooking the escalating wildfire threats in the region prior to the devastating Lahaina wildfire. Despite being aware of the looming dangers, especially in Maui, the company reportedly took an extended period to implement any significant preventive measures.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Hawaiian Electric had acknowledged the need for more robust preventive measures against wildfires as early as four years ago. The company had stated the importance of ensuring its power lines did not emit sparks, which are a known cause of wildfires.
However, instead of acting on this knowledge, the company’s focus seemed to have shifted predominantly toward green energy initiatives. This shift in priorities raised concerns among stakeholders and the general public, leading many to question the company’s decisions.
According to the report, “Four years ago, the utility said it needed to do more to prevent its power lines from emitting sparks. It made little progress, focusing on a shift to clean energy.”
The 2019 wildfire season stands as a grim testament to the severity of the situation. Described as “one of the worst Maui had ever seen,” the season witnessed vast areas of land being consumed by raging fires, causing significant damage to property and the natural environment.
It was during this catastrophic period that Hawaiian Electric came to the realization of the urgent need to prevent its power lines from emitting sparks. Yet, despite this acknowledgment, there is evidence to suggest that the company’s equipment might have played a role in the recent wildfire wreckage in the Maui town of Lahaina.
In June 2022, Hawaiian Electric sought regulatory permission to raise rates to fund a more comprehensive plan to prepare the grid for new climate change-related stresses, including elevated risk of wildfire. It said it planned to spend about $190 million across Hawaii on removing potentially hazardous trees, replacing and upgrading power lines, and other protective measures, many of which have been undertaken by other utilities throughout the West.
As in many regulatory proceedings, the proposal has taken months to advance. The state utilities commission and other stakeholders asked dozens of questions of the company. In responses filed before the Maui fire occurred, Hawaiian Electric said it believed there was an urgent need to complete the upgrades, but that it wouldn’t start on the work until it has state approval to recoup costs from customers—a common occurrence when utilities seek to make large investments.
In a filing in June, the commission said: “In light of the asserted urgency of these transmission and distribution resiliency upgrades, why did Hawaiian Electric not begin to initiate some of these projects sooner?”
The company hasn’t yet responded.
The push towards achieving renewable targets not only consumed the attention of Hawaiian Electric but also other private energy firms collaborating with them and state energy authorities, as stated by Doug McLeod, who held the position of Maui county energy commissioner for multiple years.
“Looking back with hindsight, the business opportunities were on the generation side, and the utility was going out for bid with all these big renewable-energy projects,” he remarked. “But in retrospect, it seems clear, we weren’t as focused on these fire risks as we should have been.”
Investigations are underway to determine the full extent of the company’s involvement and the reasons behind its delayed response to the wildfire threats. As of Thursday, the death toll has risen to 111. It is expected to continue to increase.