A recent report by the Associated Press suggests that the catastrophic wildfires that ravaged Hawaii earlier this month, resulting in numerous deaths and missing persons, may have been caused by a combination of high winds and outdated electricity infrastructure. The analysis conducted by the media outlet revealed that the flames on the island of Maui spread in “long, neat rows” when uninsulated electricity wires were brought down by heavy wind gusts, causing them to come into contact with dry grass. The wooden power poles supporting these lines were also vulnerable to being knocked over due to their outdated and leaning condition.
In contrast to other regions prone to wildfires and hurricanes, Hawaiian Electric Co. has neglected to cover or bury their power lines, leaving them exposed to the island’s strong trade winds and dense foliage. According to the report, many of the utility’s 60,000 power poles were built to an obsolete standard from 1960 and were both leaning and old. This failure to upgrade their infrastructure has been a cause for concern, as it increases the risk of wildfires during severe weather conditions.
Hawaii Electric acknowledged in a 2019 filing that the replacement of their wooden poles was behind schedule due to other priorities. The utility warned of a “serious public hazard” if these poles were to fall. Furthermore, it was revealed that Hawaiian Electric was far from meeting the national standard set in 2002, which stipulates that power lines should be able to withstand winds of up to 105 miles per hour.
The devastating wildfires on August 8 resulted in the loss of at least 115 lives and left 388 people missing, making it the deadliest wildfire incident in the United States in over a century. Hawaiian Electric is already facing lawsuits for its potential role in the fires, including allegations of failure to shut down power transmission as winds intensified and poles began to collapse.
In response to the allegations, Hawaiian Electric stated that their immediate focus is on restoring power, supporting residents, and developing a long-term recovery plan. The utility did not provide specific details regarding their other priorities in recent years. However, Hawaii has been increasing its investments in renewable energy sources, as lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 mandating that utilities derive 100% of their electricity from renewables by 2045.
Hawaiian Electric had plans to spend approximately $190 million on measures to protect against wildfires, but the implementation of these projects was contingent upon the approval of rate increases to cover the costs. Despite this, the utility has made significant progress in expanding its renewable power capacity since 2010.
The impact of these devastating wildfires reaches beyond the loss of lives and destruction of property. It raises concerns about the readiness and resilience of electricity infrastructure in wildfire-prone areas. As the investigation into the causes of the Maui wildfires continues, it remains to be seen what measures will be taken to prevent such tragedies in the future.