The plan addresses growing threats from climate change, including an increased focus on wildfire prevention after the Lahaina disaster.

State energy regulators have given their conditional approval to a five-year, $190 million plan by Hawaiian Electric to retool some of the most vulnerable parts of its grid as the company looks to address wildfire dangers and other threats related to climate change.

The decision comes almost six months after a deadly wildfire swept through Lahaina, destroying much of the West Maui town and killing at least 100 people.

Local watchdogs and energy policy experts who keep an eye on the state’s largest power company said they’re pleased with the Public Utility Commission’s decision Wednesday to green-light Hawaiian Electric’s new grid-hardening plan. 

Power lines on Maui in Kaanapali. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Hawaiian Electric received initial, regulatory approval this week for a sweeping plan to harden the grid against growing climate threats. After the Lahaina fire, its application for this program made wildfire prevention a much stronger priority. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The timing of the approval, they said, allowed Hawaiian Electric to meet a deadline that will help it secure a $95 million federal grant for about half that work. The grant should cut the cost of the grid upgrades in half for electricity ratepayers. 

President Joe Biden announced that Department of Energy grant in August after visiting the Lahaina disaster zone. 

“We view it as a win,” Michael Colón, energy director for the Ulupono Initiative, said Thursday. “It’s great that the federal money is coming.”

Still, many millions of additional dollars and investment will be needed in the coming decades if Hawaii’s grid is to be modernized and made more resilient overall, he added. The expensive task of burying overhead power lines underground in West Maui to help protect that area against wildfires, for example, hasn’t undergone any local planning yet.

The new Hawaiian Electric plan will include replacing and hardening some 2,100 poles across the grid so that they might better withstand heavy wind gusts, according to a company statement. 

It will also involve installing sensors plus replacing circuits and equipment along the transmission routes so that they’re less prone to spark fires, according to documents filed with the PUC.

Many questions remain as to how exactly the company will carry out its grid-hardening. The PUC added about a dozen conditions in its decision that require Hawaiian Electric to come back and brief regulators on the details of its projects as they develop. 

“That was kind of the tension there,” Colón said Thursday.

The PUC wanted to ensure Hawaiian Electric’s plans would be effective, especially after the Lahaina disaster, but it needed to “figure it out quickly” in order to hold on to the federal grant, he said.

In a statement Thursday, Hawaiian Electric Senior Vice President Colton Ching said the company appreciated the PUC’s approval of its plan and thanked federal partners for their support.

Ching was unavailable Thursday to discuss the decision further, company officials said.

An Effort That Started Before Lahaina

Hawaiian Electric initially applied for the “Climate Adaptation Transmission and Distribution Resilience Program” in June 2022, more than a year before the destructive wildfires in Lahaina and Upcountry Maui. 

The company’s application at that time focused heavily on protecting against the threat of hurricanes and heavy storms. 

After the Aug. 8 tragedy, however, the threat of wildfires took center stage in Hawaii. Regulators and utility watchdogs had new, lengthy questions about whether Hawaiian Electric’s $190 million proposal would sufficiently address the wildfire dangers in its service area, which includes Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Oahu and the Big Island. 

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 Aug. 8 disaster on Maui spurred Hawaiian Electric to make its grid-resiliency plan more focused on the threat of wildfires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

In November, Hawaiian Electric responded by adjusting the plan somewhat, giving higher priority to service areas with a high wildfire risk. It shifted tens of millions of dollars worth of grid-hardening work from areas not prone to wildfires into those high-risk regions. 

It also boosted the plan’s Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation initiative from an original budget of $14 million to $42 million by taking money from other areas. The $190 million price tag remained the same.

“The question was what can be done with the existing application to lean it more toward wildfire mitigation?” Colón said Thursday.

The nonprofit environmental and community watchdog group Life of the Land submitted numerous questions after the Lahaina disaster about Hawaiian Electric’s ability to address the wildfire threat. Earlier this month, Hawaiian Electric responded to many of those questions and Life of the Land then said it would support a PUC decision on the climate plan.

Henry Curtis, the group’s executive director, said Wednesday he was pleased with the PUC conditions.

“We look forward to more disclosures and more discussions as the process moves forward,” he said.

Next, Hawaiian Electric will finalize its deal with the Department of Energy for the plan’s grant, Colón said. The company is also expected to conduct community outreach and gather more input on the latest version of the climate and wildfire plan, he said.

“This is kind of step one,” Colón said. “Wildfire is something that’s been ignored for a long time in Hawaii. Now, it’s front and center.”

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

Civil Beat’s coverage of environmental issues on Hawaii island is supported in part by a grant from the Dorrance Family Foundation.

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