An earnings call with investors highlighted uncertainties surrounding Hawaii’s electric utility and its parent following the Maui wildfires.

Hawaiian Electric Industries and its utility subsidiaries have substantial amounts of borrowed cash to cover expenses for the foreseeable future, company executives told investors on Thursday.

But numerous questions remain unanswered, including the amount of potential liability the company faces from dozens of lawsuits related to the Lahaina wildfires.

The plethora of uncertainties in an earnings call were unusual for HEI, a holding company whose main businesses are power utilities with stable customer bases and no competition.

HEI Hawaiian Electric Building3. 1 june 2016
Traditionally a bedrock of Hawaii’s business community, Hawaiian Electric Industries hosted an earnings call on Thursday in which the company left many questions unanswered. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

The Hawaiian Electric companies’ biggest challenge until recently has involved the technically thorny work of weaning the state from electricity generated from fossil fuels. Now Hawaiian Electric is dealing with an unprecedented disaster that people are blaming the company for causing.

Scott Seu, president and chief executive of Hawaiian Electric Industries, kicked off the presentation acknowledging the unusual nature of the call, saying “our discussion today will be different from our usual earnings calls.”

“The tragedy is still fresh for us,” Seu said of the Lahaina fires. “The scale of the loss is difficult for our hearts and minds to process.”

Also apparently difficult to process was the information required in quarterly reports to securities regulators. Normally issued alongside the earnings call, this quarter’s 10-Q won’t come out until early next week, Seu said.

Earnings guidance for the rest of 2023 is also suspended. The company said it will “periodically revisit ability to provide guidance as we move forward.”

Hawaiian Electric President and CEO Shelee Kimura, shown here testifying during a congressional hearing on the Maui wildfires, could not say when the company will file an incident report with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2023)

Executives also wouldn’t say when the company will file an incident report with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. 

“I don’t have a timing on that,” Hawaiian Electric utility chief executive, Shelee Kimura, said. “That work is still ongoing. That’s about all I can say right now.”

Also unclear was the amount of money the company will spend on making its grid more resilient. Paul Ito, Hawaiian Electric’s chief financial officer, said such investments would increase, but declined to say by how much.

“We will be prioritizing wildfire related type investments and we think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We’ve been doing it, but we’re just going to start accelerating that program.”

What executives did say is that Hawaiian Electric has plenty of cash on hand, even though it spent $27.6 million on fire-related expenses in the weeks after the fire, including $10.8 million in legal expenses, for the three months ended Sept. 30. 

As of the end of September, the parent Hawaiian Electric Industries and its utility subsidiaries had $402 million in cash on hand, which HEI’s Chief Financial Officer Scott DeGhetto called a “significant liquidity runway.” 

The sources of the money included $370 million raised by drawing down revolving credit lines and $40 million from suspending its dividend paid to shareholders. Asked how long the money will last, DeGhetto said simply that the company has a “good level of runway at this time.”

Asked whether HEI might consider selling its American Savings Bank or Pacific Current subsidiaries to raise more cash, DeGhetto said, “At this point, we just are not going to speculate on any of those potential options.”

Scott Seu, president and chief executive of Hawaiian Electric Industries, said he couldn’t quantify the amount of liability the Hawaiian Electric companies face from some 65 lawsuits related to the Maui wildfires because the suits don’t specify alleged damages. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2017)

The conference call came as Hawaiian Electric faces a morass of lawsuits related to the wildfires, including complaints that the utility started the blazes, which killed at least 99, destroyed thousands of structures and caused more than $5 billion in property damage. Hawaiian Electric shares have plummeted since the fires, and its bond rating has been slashed. 

Executives on Thursday quantified the staggering scale of litigation facing the companies, pegging the number of complaints at 65. But executives could not say what this means in terms of potential liability because the suits don’t specify damages, Seu said.

Seu attributed the delay in HEI’s 10-Q filing to recent developments involving a $150 million fund for fire victims. Families of those who died or were seriously injured in the Maui fires will be able to receive more than $1 million if they choose not to pursue wrongful death claims in court, Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday, unveiling a coalition between the state, Hawaiian Electric, Kamehameha Schools and Maui County to compensate victims.

Hawaiian Electric has agreed to put in $75 million from some $165 million in liability insurance coverage it has. 

Asked whether there was a deadline for people to apply to participate in the fund, Seu said, “The details are still being worked on that.” 

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