About the Authors

Ryan Hurley

Ryan Hurley is an attorney and former vice-chair of the Hawaii State Bar Association’s environment, energy, and resources section, which combines community-minded advocacy with practical legal solutions in environmental, energy/utility, good government, and land use matters. He holds a law degree from Chapman University and an undergraduate degree from Hawaii Pacific University. Hurley’s career includes roles as counsel for the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and in various capacities within the state auditor and energy offices.

Christina Lizzi

Christina Lizzi is president of the Maui County Bar Association and an attorney specializing in civil litigation and administrative law, particularly in land use and utility regulation in Hawaii. Her experience includes serving as deputy prosecuting attorney in Maui County and as a former law clerk of Hawaii Associate Justice Sabrina S. McKenna and former Hawaii Associate Justice Richard Pollack. Lizzi holds a law degree summa cum laude from William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawaii Manoa, and a B.A. in international affairs magna cum laude from The George Washington University.

The state should make it a priority to include extensive community engagement, enhanced safety, and reinforced resilience against natural disasters.

The Lahaina fires of Aug. 8, America’s deadliest in a century, starkly highlighted the realities of climate change, post-plantation land management, and the vulnerabilities in Hawaii’s energy system — including the state’s ambition for 100% renewable energy. These fires underscore the need for an energy strategy emphasizing community, resiliency, and energy justice.

Hawaii’s push for 100% renewable energy by 2045 has been a top-down initiative, with the state Legislature, Public Utilities Commission, incumbent utilities like Hawaiian Electric and non-governmental organizations driving the process with limited community engagement. This approach has empowered HECO to acquire energy from large-scale independent renewable projects in rural communities with historical ties to plantation agriculture.

This approach may again allow multinational and foreign corporations to control vast swaths of Hawaii lands, mirroring past colonial and plantation-era inequities by continuing to centralize land control while marginalizing local and indigenous voices.

The dangers of renewable energy infrastructure were brought to the forefront by the 2012 fire at the Kahuku Wind Power’s Battery Energy Storage System. The Lahaina fires highlight the need for HECO and PUC to integrate fire mitigation into their renewable energy transition, ensuring safety and resiliency are balanced against price, speedy adoption, and equity.

Hawaiian Electric and government officials have said they think a downed power line near the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and Hookahua Street sparked the morning fire Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The Lahaina fires, while tragic, could also push the state to a better path forward in renewable energy. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

HECO’s pursuit of renewable energy extends back to the 1970s, with recent endeavors encompassing a multistage request for proposal for renewable generation and storage, starting in 2017. That information comes from dockets filed with the PUC.

Projects from the early stages of the RFP are either in development, already operational, or abandoned. Later stages of the RFP are still in progress, with the final project selections unknown to the public.

The Lahaina fires exposed gaps in the regulatory framework concerning HECO’s transfer of responsibility — and potentially liability — to independent power producers (IPPs) developing projects.

HECO may lack the rights to implement vegetation management plans, fire suppression tactics, or other safety measures on the IPP sites, leaving these issues involving critical infrastructure in the hands of the developers. It was assumed that local administrative bodies issuing the necessary permits would address these issues. However, the limited community participation has demonstrated that the developers are woefully unprepared to manage any fire-related incidents that may arise on their project sites.

The Lahaina fires exposed gaps in the regulatory framework.

Notably, many of the RFP projects are located on dry fallow agricultural lands and include new overhead transmission lines and lithium-ion batteries throughout the site. This implicates significant land use changes, economic and environmental impacts, as well as fire concerns from overhead lines and batteries.

During a contested case hearing for the proposed Paeahu Solar project on Maui, community interveners asked project developers about fire risks associated with the transmission lines and the battery storage systems.

The responses were alarming. In the event of a fire, the developer stated they would “remotely monitor” the fire and allow it to “naturally burn out.”

Such an approach does not instill confidence, particularly in a location where wildfires pose a serious risk and high winds off the slopes of Haleakala could easily carry the fire into neighboring properties.

When questioned about how the fire service would handle a battery fire, the developer could not specify which standard equipment would be used. This uncertainty was compounded by the developer’s lack of knowledge about the necessary water volume to put out such fire, the proximity of the nearest water source, or even the ability to identify a sufficient water supply to combat a fire. None will be provided on-site.

The admission that the developer would direct the fire department response without ensuring water availability and the absence of proactive fire suppression systems was startling. This reactive approach to fire risk jeopardizes the safety of surrounding communities.

Although the PUC has not yet begun investigating the Lahaina fires, and federal inquiries remain unfinished, practical solutions are apparent.

For instance, in September, while surveying the aftermath of the Lahaina fires and announcing $95 million in federal funds to strengthen Hawaii’s electrical grid, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm highlighted undergrounding and/or the use of steel-reinforced poles for any above-ground wires. However, neither of these measures are currently being implemented or proposed in any of the ongoing RFP projects under development, nor are they mandated in the forthcoming RFP stages.

The Legislature, PUC, HECO, and involved NGOs must reconsider their strategy for adopting large-scale, multinational/foreign-owned renewable energy projects. The priority should shift to include extensive community engagement, enhanced safety, and reinforced resilience against natural disasters.

To this end, the PUC should suspend the current RFP processes, revisit the RFP framework, and allow community groups to intervene and offer their input. This would facilitate the development of a procurement process that is not only more inclusive — securing community approval and addressing social equity — but also ensures that the resulting projects are robustly designed to endure events like wildfires and hurricanes, with a strong focus on community-centric outcomes.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


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About the Authors

Ryan Hurley

Ryan Hurley is an attorney and former vice-chair of the Hawaii State Bar Association’s environment, energy, and resources section, which combines community-minded advocacy with practical legal solutions in environmental, energy/utility, good government, and land use matters. He holds a law degree from Chapman University and an undergraduate degree from Hawaii Pacific University. Hurley’s career includes roles as counsel for the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission and in various capacities within the state auditor and energy offices.

Christina Lizzi

Christina Lizzi is president of the Maui County Bar Association and an attorney specializing in civil litigation and administrative law, particularly in land use and utility regulation in Hawaii. Her experience includes serving as deputy prosecuting attorney in Maui County and as a former law clerk of Hawaii Associate Justice Sabrina S. McKenna and former Hawaii Associate Justice Richard Pollack. Lizzi holds a law degree summa cum laude from William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawaii Manoa, and a B.A. in international affairs magna cum laude from The George Washington University.


Latest Comments (0)

HECO is not our friend. If you live on Oahu and you're not preparing for rolling blackouts and brownouts, your lost.

Fakename · 3 months ago

There several different non-flammable battery types that are already commercially available. These are usually referred to as "Flow Batteries". In addition to being non-flammable, some of them cost less than lithium batteries, last longer and can store more energy. Perhaps the state should ban flammable batteries?

Thrasybulus_of_Athens · 3 months ago

Its past time the state stepped in to properly regulate many aspects of power production and related safety concerns - the best way would be to buy out HECO and make it a public cooperative non-profit utility - like KIUC on Kauai - with more transparency. The power of greed and profit obscure safety concerns and raise electric rates beyond what is affordable .

Chris · 3 months ago

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