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Hawaiian Electric Lawsuit Is More Evidence That Electric Grids Across the U.S. Need Updating

6 minute read

In the wake of the devastating Lahaina wildfire in Maui that left at least 111 people dead, Hawaiian Electric Company is facing a lawsuit claiming that the company “chose not to deenergize their power lines” before the natural disaster despite power lines being known to cause and exacerbate wildfires. 

While the exact cause of the wildfire remains unknown, Hawaiian Electric is not the first electric company to find itself facing potential liability in the aftermath of climate-related disasters. As electric companies across the U.S. begin to take steps to reduce the risks of utility-fueled fires, experts tell TIME that modernizing the electric grid and planning for extreme weather events—including having power turn-off plans and preemptively updating utility equipment—needs to be a priority in an increasingly changing climate

“We're not planning our infrastructure for the changes that we're already seeing in the climate and expect to see moving into the future,” says Melissa Lott, the senior director of research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Lott notes that the U.S.’s infrastructure is largely built on historic, and increasingly outdated, weather patterns. “We're still planning for the past and not the future in most cases.”

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An increase in liability

No official cause has determined for the Lahaina wildfires, but the lawsuit filed in the days after the fire alleges that, despite warnings of increased fire dangers from the National Weather Service, Hawaiian Electric, which serves 95% of the island state’s 1.4 million residents, did not institute a “public power shutoff plan”—in which power is pre-emptively shut off in cases of high fire risk— and continued to supply power to its electric lines. Wind gusts in Maui knocked down an estimated 30 power lines, many of which were still energized when they hit the ground. 

The suit claims that the company knew of the wildfire risks in Maui, citing a 2022 funding request for $189.7 million from the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, in which the company said that “the risk of a utility system causing a wildfire ignition is significant,” and that the electric infrastructure was not strong enough to withstand high winds. 

In a statement to TIME, Hawaiian Electric Company said that they do not comment on pending litigation. “Our immediate focus is on supporting emergency response efforts on Maui and restoring power for our customers and communities as quickly as possible. At this early stage, the cause of the fire has not been determined and we will work with the state and county as they conduct their review.”

From 1992 to 2020, federal, state and local fire services dealt with 32,652 powerline-ignited wildfires across the country, according to Inside Climate News. As wildfires become more common in the American West, electric companies have been facing increased scrutiny for their role in the spread.

The Hawaiian Electric lawsuit echoes those filed against PG&E, one of the largest gas and electric energy companies in the United States, in the wake of the 2018 Camp Fire in California, says Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University. The Camp Fire was ignited by a faulty transmission line.

Building resilient infrastructure

From the Camp Fire in California to the Marshall Fire in Colorado, which was reportedly sparked by a power line and days-old bonfire, extreme climate events are exposing how vulnerable electric infrastructure can be in the face of wildfires. 

Part of the risk has to do with how electric grids are maintained. “In the old days, a cost effective way to run a utility system and to keep costs down was to basically let the poles fail and then fix things when they break,” says Wara. “But if you have a situation where you can have these dry wind events, and fuels that are dry enough to carry fire, you can't operate a system that way safely.”

Fire risks are also prompting electric companies to rethink how power grids are set up. In the aftermath of its bankruptcy declared in Jan 2019 as the company faced over $30 billion in liabilities and 750 lawsuits surrounding wildfires, PG&E announced a large-scale plan to move 10,000 miles of power lines underground, an effort primarily concentrated in regions with high fire risk. Only 20% of the U.S.’s electric grid is currently underground, according to T&D World. The process, which would help protect the lines during high winds and storms, is expensive– costing up to $5 million per mile– and experts say that, while it is effective, it’s not an easily scalable solution. 

“Undergrounding is an effective, but extraordinarily expensive mitigation [strategy,]” says  Katy Morsony, staff attorney at the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a utility consumer advocacy organization in California. “It needs to be used strategically, so that it's providing the most risk reduction where it's deployed.”

Instead, experts say that companies should focus their efforts on less expensive, preventative strategies. 

San Diego’s electric company, SDG&E is an example of this, says Wara. Following the Witch Fire and Guejito Fire in 2007, which combined into a single wildfire that burned nearly 200,000 acres in San Diego County, the company invested in weather stations that would allow them to better understand fire conditions and safely turn off power during high wind events. 

A Public Power Shutoff Plan, which allows utility companies to preemptively shut off electricity during dangerous weather conditions, is now in use across California. But instituting a plan like that requires planning from electric companies, and is by no means as easy as flipping off a switch, Wara says. “[Electric companies] have to know how to turn the power off in the system and then restore it. That's not something that most utilities really know how to do, because they never do it.” The process, he says, usually involves consulting with agencies like the fire department and water company, along with any customers who require electricity for medical devices, to ensure they have backup power set up in the event of an outage. 

TURN has been advocating for cover conductors, which Morsony says provide multi-layered insulation to protect lines from accidental contact with trees and brush. Morsony says the cover conductors protect against a number of different wildfire causes and are faster to install and more cost-effective than undergrounding.

Wara says that communities across the U.S. need to begin contending with how extreme weather events will shape electric grids, and begin planning for it. 

 “The pattern is repeated. PG&E didn't turn the power off– bad things happened. PacifiCorp didn't turn the power off–bad things happened. In Colorado, Xcel didn't turn the power off–bad things happened. And now in Hawaii, the same thing,” says Wara. “At some point, I would hope that it becomes standard practice, that utility [companies] have to make a decision to have a process to decide [whether] to turn the power off or not.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com