Initial plans do not include a program to shut off power like those used in other states.

Sending “spotters” to high-risk areas and expanding inspections of poles and lines are among the steps Hawaiian Electric plans to take to prevent its transmission systems from igniting wildfires in dry, windy weather in places most vulnerable to fires.

The announcement Friday comes as firefighters fight blazes in central Oahu above Mililani Mauka and about three months after a wildfire destroyed much of Lahaina, killing 99 people and razing hundreds of homes and businesses. The utility faces dozens of lawsuits alleging the company started the fires.

“With the events of Aug. 8 fresh in our minds, safety remains our top priority, and as drought conditions continue, Hawai‘i is seeing heightened risks for wildfires across the state, as we have seen this week with a fire near Mililani,” Jim Alberts, senior vice president and chief operations officer of Hawaiian Electric, said in a news release. “We are building upon our current strategy and implementing new and expanded practices to further reduce the risk of wildfires.” 

A military helicopter flies toward a large vegetation fire in the Mililani Mauka-Launani Valley area Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, as seen from the Ewa Forest Reserve. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
A military helicopter flew toward a large vegetation fire in the Mililani Mauka-Launani Valley area on Oahu on Monday. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

The plans stop short of what some have called for: a public safety power shutoff program such as those used in California, where power systems can be shut down in areas where conditions like winds and drought post high risks.

Enhancing Safety

Still Hawaiian Electric did lay out several plans to enhance safety. Among other things the utility will send “spotters” to certain areas to watch for equipment sparking fires in areas where there’s a combination of drought, low humidity and high winds. 

“We’ve only done that a couple of times since Aug. 8,” said Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric’s vice president for government and community relations and corporate communications. “We literally would send out people to watch our equipment and monitor for any potential ignition and trouble along the line.”

The utility also will ensure systems shut down if a fault or disturbance is detected, which Kelly said was “basically setting up the system so that it’s more sensitive than it was previously.”

Additionally, the company said it will “deploy more advanced sensors, cameras and other technology to reduce the likelihood of longer outages and the need for visual observation.”

A second phase of work includes expanding inspections of poles and lines; addressing sag and tension in lines, replacing wood poles with steel poles in some areas and continuing vegetation management efforts next to power lines.

Hawaiian Electric has sought permission to spend $190 million for numerous improvements meant to enhance the resiliency of its infrastructure to protect systems against impacts of increasingly severe weather in a time of climate change, including wildfires, hurricanes, tsunami and flooding. 

The company began seeking permission from regulators in 2022 and since then has secured $95 million from the federal government. It expects to charge customers for the rest of the work.

Hawaiian Electric has estimated the total $190 million investment would cost the average residential customer about 33 cents per month on Oahu, 86 cents on Hawaii island and 71 cents on Maui. The federal money would likely cut those costs by half.

The company is awaiting approval by the Public Utilities Commission.

‘A Very Blunt Instrument’

Hawaiian Electric also said Friday it has begun discussions with government, emergency response and community stakeholders to develop a public safety power shutoff program similar to ones in place for years in California. But Kelly said much goes into creating such a program, including establishing in-house wildfire-focused weather forecasting and risk modeling so the utility will not have to simply shut off power for large areas, including those not at risk.

“It’s a very blunt instrument unless you have better data, better forecasting capabilities,” Kelly said.

Marco Mangelsdorf, a Hawaii island utility expert, called Hawaiian Electric’s move to establish a PSPS “better late than never.”

But he asked why the utility has waited until after the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history to begin acting.

“California has had this program in place for three or four years,” he said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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