The community wants more changes to make the grid safer, such as burying lines underground. That planning process hasn’t started yet.

Hawaiian Electric is replacing many of the wood poles that were damaged or destroyed in the deadly Lahaina wildfire last year with about 70 new steel ones after consulting with community members on its efforts to rebuild the West Maui grid.

Those steel poles will run along the same power transmission and distribution routes that had existed before the heavy winds and fire that engulfed most of the town on Aug. 8, according to a Hawaiian Electric release Thursday.

The move is “a no-brainer,” said Kim Ball, one of five local residents on Mayor Richard Bissen’s Lahaina Advisory Team, which was formed to consult with the mayor as the town’s recovery progresses. 

Power lines on Maui in Kaanapali. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Power lines run on wooden poles through West Maui in Kaanapali. Hawaiian Electric is replacing about 70 damaged or destroyed wooden poles in the Lahaina burn zone with steel ones, along a backup power route that’s being rebuilt. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Community members suggested using metal poles “from the get-go” after the fire occurred, and the mayor’s advisory team recommended Hawaiian Electric make the switch, Ball said.

Hawaiian Electric describes those poles, along with other electrical equipment recently installed nearby, as “interim.” The Lahaina grid could still see major design and layout changes to make it safer and more resilient in the long term based on what the community wants to see there.

One thing the community overwhelmingly wants is for Hawaiian Electric to bury as many transmission lines underground as possible to significantly reduce the threat of wildfire going forward, Ball said. 

That task would be massively expensive, however — and it’s still not clear when the planning process for Lahaina’s future grid will begin.

Hawaiian Electric officials said that any community-driven, long-term planning to upgrade the town’s grid will go through the newly formed Office of Recovery, led by Maui County Managing Director Josiah Nishita. 

So far, the utility hasn’t had any talks with the county office regarding that planning.

“Everyone is focused on the immediate recovery responses,” Hawaiian Electric Maui spokesperson Shayna Decker said in an email Thursday.

Decker didn’t provide an estimate on how long that planning might take. The timing, she said, will depend on Lahaina’s larger rebuilding process. 

Maui County spokesperson Mahina Martin did not respond to multiple requests for comment on that planning process.

The new steel poles run along a backup power route through Lahaina, according to Hawaiian Electric. The route is expected to be rebuilt by the end of the year. Once it’s done, service in West Maui should be more reliable and customers should see fewer extended outages, the company said Thursday.

The company added that it is now working to restore power to fewer than 10 remaining customers in Lahaina whose properties weren’t destroyed in the fire.

“I think our community would like to have underground (lines), but they’d like to get back in their homes, too,” said Ball, who lost multiple family homes in the Aug. 8 wildfire.

“Our whole neighborhood — people I coach with, anybody I talk to — wants to get back in and roll up their sleeves and get their houses going. We’re tired of being displaced,” he said.

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

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