Maui tragedy: Why didn't the power firm shut off supply? Experts believe it worsened the situation
Hawaiian Electric faces criticism for not implementing a power shutoff plan before Maui wildfires.
Hawaiian Electric, the major utility servicing 95 percent of Hawaii's population has come under scrutiny for not choosing to enact a "public power shutoff plan" despite severe weather warnings, just days before devastating brush fires wreaked havoc across Maui. This decision has raised concerns about the utility's proactive approach to preventing wildfires and safeguarding its aging infrastructure.
Unprecedented wind gusts spark concerns
Weather forecasters had issued a warning about powerful wind gusts that posed a significant risk of sparking dangerous fire conditions across Hawaii. While Hawaiian Electric took some precautionary steps, including not enabling the automatic reclosure of circuits during the weather event, it did not implement the highly regarded strategy of shutting down power to high-risk areas.
According to Jennifer Potter, a former member of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, "They were not as proactive as they should have been about fire-prevention planning. There had not been any real meaningful action to address some of those inadequacies in terms of wildfire."
Hesitation to use power shutoff
The decision not to use a power shutoff plan, a strategy increasingly adopted by other states like California, has drawn scrutiny. Experts point out that while shutting down power disrupts lives and businesses, it can be a powerful tool in preventing destructive and deadly wildfires, especially in the face of extreme weather events linked to climate change.
Michael Wara, a wildfire expert and director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, explains that "The purpose of a plan is to organize with agencies in advance. That includes emergency responders who, with enough time, can procure equipment such as backup generators to pump water if the grid goes down."
California's influence and lessons
Hawaiian Electric was aware of the effectiveness of power shutoff plans, having studied California's response to devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018. However, concerns about coordination with first responders, customer notifications, and potential backlash played a role in the utility's decision-making process.
"The risk of a utility system causing a wildfire ignition is significant," the company stated last summer. While acknowledging the success of California's Power Safety Shutoff Plan, the utility expressed concerns that shutting off power might hinder firefighting efforts by preventing fire crews from using electricity to draw water, as noted in the company's statement.
Aging infrastructure and vulnerabilities
The vulnerability of Hawaii's power grid has long been a concern, with aging wooden poles and uninsulated lines crisscrossing rugged terrain. Calls to invest in grid hardening and burying power lines have been growing, highlighting the need for modernization to mitigate wildfire risks.
Doug McLeod, a former energy commissioner for Maui County, remarked, "I think we were all playing on the fact that we got lucky — up until now."
Also Read | Emergency sirens fail to sound alarm as Maui residents forced to seek refuge in ocean amid horrific wildfire
Ongoing investigation and legal action
The cause of the Maui fires is under investigation, and the Hawaii Attorney General has announced a comprehensive review of decisions and policies surrounding the incident. Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against the utility, alleging that its downed power lines were responsible for the fire.
As Hawaii continues to grapple with the aftermath of these devastating wildfires, questions persist about the utility's readiness to prevent and respond to similar events in the future. The incident underscores the urgent need for enhanced wildfire prevention strategies and infrastructure upgrades to safeguard communities against the growing threat of wildfires in an era of climate change.