Hawaiian Electric Prioritized State-Mandated Green-Energy Push over Wildfire Prevention, Ex-Energy Officials Claim
by Ari Blaff, National Review, August 17, 2023
As calls mount to investigate Hawaiian Electric in the wake of the state’s worst wildfire ever, reports have emerged showing that the company was aware of vulnerabilities within its system that could contribute to such a natural disaster but instead prioritized developing renewable energy in accordance with state law.
In 2015, state legislators passed a first-in-the-nation bill mandating that Hawaii’s energy supply derive entirely from renewable sources by 2045. Seeking to maintain compliance with this new push, the firm struggled to compensate with renewable energy after it retired two conventional power plants in 2019.
“You have to look at the scope and scale of the transformation within [Hawaiian Electric] that was occurring throughout the system,” Mina Morita, chairwoman of the state’s utilities commission a decade ago, told the Journal. “While there was concern for wildfire risk, politically the focus was on electricity generation.”
Doug McLeod, a consultant who previously worked with Maui’s energy commissioner, echoed the concern. “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,” the analyst told the Journal. “But in retrospect, it seems clear, we weren’t as focused on these fire risks as we should have been.”
The firm’s fixation on environmentally friendly projects seemingly distracted the utility company from well-known problems within its energy grid. Following the 2019 wildfire season in Maui, which claimed the lives of 89 residents, the utility company conducted a review and was alerted to shortcomings within its energy grid, particularly its power lines emitting sparks.
In the intervening years, Hawaiian Electronic consequently invested less than a quarter-of-a-million dollars on wildfire-related projects, regulatory filings obtained by the Wall Street Journal show.
“We’ve been hammering this home, and it’s just really frustrating and heartbreaking to see that some things could have been done, but we couldn’t find money,” Elizabeth Pickett, a researcher who helped draft a wildfire protection plan for the island in 2014, told the Journal. “We are living through what happens when there’s a lag and everyone’s still catching up.”
The recommendations Pickett’s team presented at the time included vegetation thinning in densely populated areas, public education campaigns, and deeper collaboration with local utility companies.
The source of August’s deadly fire, which has claimed the lives of over one hundred islanders and is the nation’s worst in over a century, remains unknown. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that faulty utility equipment may have played a crucial role. One video circulating online shows a downed power line igniting grass near Lahanaia, the epicenter of the conflagration.
“We all believe it’s important to understand what happened. And I think we all believe it’s important to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Shelee Kimura, the chief executive of Hawaiian Electric, told the Journal.
Following the wildfire, Hawaiian Electric’s balance sheet has been sent into a tailspin as its stock shed nearly half its value this week, while Standard & Poors (S&P) downgraded its credit rating to junk level.
WSJ: Hawaiian Electric Knew of Wildfire Threat, but Waited Years to Act -- 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.