Hawaiian Electric is under scrutiny for allegedly slow-walking modernization and repairs of its electrical grid before the fire that ripped through the island of Maui last week.
Hawaiian Electric is Hawaii’s principle electric utility, providing power to roughly 95% of the state. Financial disclosures and reports show the company worried about the state of its electrical grid, and specifically the risk of wildfires, but devoted resources to building out the utility’s green energy network with limited action to mitigate fire risk, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The scrutiny on the company’s past priorities comes as it faces allegations in court that it is to blame for the fire last week that ripped through the historic beach town of Lahaina, killing over 100 people and destroying thousands of buildings. The wildfire is the deadliest in modern American history, surpassing California’s Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise in 2019.
Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura said during a press conference this week that the utility would be launching its own investigation. She said it would cooperate with an investigation by the state attorney general as well.
“We will be doing our own investigation. The state will be doing an investigation. We will cooperate fully in that. I think we all believe it’s important to understand what happened, and I think we all believe it’s important to make sure it never happens again,” Kimura said this week.
The utility concluded in a 2019 report after one of the worst fire seasons in Maui’s history that the company needed to do more to mitigate fire risk. From 2019 to 2022, the utility spent less than $245,000 on projects to mitigate fire risk, according to financial filings reviewed by WSJ. The utility said it spent $84 million to clear hazards away from power lines and on maintenance since 2018.
The focus on Hawaii’s energy priorities over the past decade has been dominated by its push for green energy. The state enacted a first-in-the-country law in 2015 mandating that Hawaii’s grid be powered by 100% renewable energy by 2045. In 2021, regulators finished a top-to-bottom restructuring of the regulatory framework to guide that transition, offering Hawaiian Electric large bonuses for finishing green energy projects on time, and threatening the utility with fines if it missed deadlines.
“You have to look at the scope and scale of the transformation within [Hawaiian Electric] that was occurring throughout the system,” Mina Morita, the 2011-2015 chair of the state utilities commission, told WSJ. “While there was concern for wildfire risk, politically the focus was on electricity generation.”
The utility submitted a plan to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission last year that said the utility would spend $190 million on projects on Maui such as removing trees and brush from areas around power lines and shoring up the island’s aging electrical infrastructure. While the commission approved the plan, Hawaiian electric put off implementing it until it received approval to pay for the project by increasing rates on customers. That approval still has not been given, according to WSJ.