Maui utility company ignored wildfire threats in push for renewable energy

Between 2019 and 2022, the company invested less than $245,000 on wildfire-specific projects on the island.

Hannah Nightingale Washington DC

As recovery work continues on the island of Maui following a deadly wildfire, utility provider Hawaii Electric is facing scrutiny over the role its power lines may have played in sparking the blaze.

In 2019, one wildfire burned over 9,000 acres in Central Maui, coming within 150 feet of Hawaii Electric’s power plant in Maui. The plant accounts for up to 80 percent of the power supply on the island.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Hawaii Electric issued a press release at the end of 2019 promising to address wildfire risk, including installing heavier conductors to minimize sparking and technology to detect disruptions when conductors came in contact with other lines or vegetation, as well as cameras to monitor weather and fire retardant poles.

In filings over the next two years with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission though, the company only made passing reference to mitigating wildfires.

Between 2019 and 2022, the company invested less than $245,000 on wildfire-specific projects on the island, and didn’t seek state approval to raise rates to pay for wildfire safety improvements until 2022, which the company has yet to receive.

Instead, Hawaii Electric has been pushing to convert to renewable energy. According to the outlet, the push began in 2008 when rising oil prices caused electrical rates to skyrocket. In 2015, lawmakers passed legislation requiring the state to receive 100 percent of it’s electricity from renewable sources by 2045. In 2017, the utility company said they would reach this goal 5 years sooner than scheduled.

In 2019, as two conventional power plants were set to be retired, the company sought to contract for 900 megawatts of renewable energy.

"You have to look at the scope and scale of the transformation within [Hawaiian Electric] that was occurring throughout the system," said Mina Morita, chair of the state utilities commission from 2011 to 2015. "While there was concern for wildfire risk, politically the focus was on electricity generation."

Private energy companies working with Hawaii Electric were also included in this drive to reach renewable goals, said Doug McLeod, a consultant who served for several years as the Maui county energy commissioner. 

"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 said. "But in retrospect, it seems clear, we weren’t as focused on these fire risks as we should have been."

A 2020 management audit of the company found that its enterprise risk analysis was focused mainly on financial risk, with limited consideration for operation and business risk. The audit also found that the company that oversaw power line operations had significant management problems.

Henry Curtis, who leads an environmental group that weighs in on utility projects, said that officials at Hawaii Electric told him privately they didn’t believe the state was prone to the destructive wildfires seen in California, and that Hawaii’s dry grasslands were less of an urgent threat than California’s dry timberlands.

Former Hawaii Electric board member Shirley Daniel said the company didn’t see Hawaiian fires as a major threat. 

A Maui County government commission in July of 2021 warned state and local officials of the growing threat of fires.

“The investigation found that the number of incidents from a combination of wild/brush/forest fires appears to be increasing, and that this increase poses an increased threat to citizens, properties, and sacred sites,” the commission’s report concluded, adding that not enough was being done to address these concerns.

In response to questions on wildfire mitigation spending, a Hawaii Electric spokesperson said the company reduces this risk through its routine utility work, which includes upgrading, replacing and inspecting equipment and trimming or removing trees. The spokesperson also said the company has spent around $84 million on maintenance and tree work in Maui County since 2018.

As of Wednesday, the death toll of the Maui fire rose to 110, according to the Associated Press, making it one of the deadliest wildfires in US history.

The Wall Street Journal reported, "The fire’s cause hasn’t been determined, but mounting evidence suggests the utility’s equipment was involved. One video taken by a resident shows a downed power line igniting dry grass along a road near Lahaina. A firm that monitors grid sensors reported dozens of electrical disruptions in the hours before the fire began, including one that coincided in time with video footage of a flash of light from power lines."

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