Photo by Hawaiian Electric.
Hawaiian Electric crews work on distribution lines.

Hawaiian Electric Battles Outages, Lawsuits After Wildfire Strikes Maui

Aug. 16, 2023
Workers with Hawaiian Electric are working to restore more customers in parts of West Maui and Upcountry, which are the higher altitude parts of the island.

Hawaiian Electric, the utility serving most of the wildfire-struck island of Maui, is battling to restore power as it faces questions about its part in the fires that hit historic Lahaina and other areas.

Since the fires hit last week, several groups have sued the utility claiming that it may have been able to prevent the blazes had they instituted a public safety power shut-off before high winds hit the islands, The New York Times reported.

Hawaii Electric’s CEO Shelee Kimura said at an August 14 press conference that the utility did not have a shut-off plan, also telling the press that power outages cause problems of their own, including a hampered public health response during a disaster that has taken some 100 lives.

According to the utility, electricity is also needed to run water pumps that help make the firefighting response possible.

As of August 15, workers with Hawaiian Electric are working to restore more customers in parts of West Maui and Upcountry, which are the higher altitude parts of the island. Hawaiian Electric serves about 74,000 customers on Maui.

As part of the response, the utility called in crews and equipment from Oahu, Hawaii Island, Molokai and Lanai as well as working with state and county officials. A federal state of emergency has also been declared.

Power has been restored to about 80% of the customers who have been without electricity since Tuesday. Crews are continuing response efforts to restore about 95 customers in Upcountry and approximately 2,000 customers in West Maui, according to a press release from the utility.

In West Maui, crews are repairing two of the three main transmission lines serving the area and are making progress on restoring service to more customers. August 14, crews restored power to schools and county facilities mauka of the Lahaina Bypass Road and the Lahaina Civic Center area.

August 12, Hawaiian Electric deployed a mobile substation unit at its Lahainaluna substation to help restore power to the area and its homes, schools and water facilities.

In Upcountry, all transmission lines have been restored and crews are continuing to repair neighborhood circuits and individual service lines.

About 2,000 structures were destroyed by the flames, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and damage estimates are at about $5.5 billion. FEMA has also sent about 500 federal workers to Maui to assist with the recovery.

The Associated Press reported on some videos posted to social media showing downed distribution lines sparking fires and Hawaii residents attempting to douse the flames with water from garden hoses.

Lawsuits and reports aside, officials are still investigating the causes of the fires. Hawaii Electric Vice President Jim Kelly told CNN that his utility is cooperating with fire investigators, and that the utility will not comment on any potential liabilities. Power shut-offs, Kelly said, are handled on a case-by-case basis and managed alongside first responders.

Moody’s Investors Service said in a release that the Maui wildfires will put Hawaiian Electric at risk financially. However, unlike California, the state of Hawaii does not apply the doctrine of reverse condemnation to utilities, which holds utilities liable for damages caused by equipment, regardless of fault or conduct.

On the other hand, according to Moody’s, rulings of negligence against the utility are not out of the question as investigations into the causes of the fires move forward.

S&P Global Rankings downgraded Hawaiian Electric to junk status (BB-), according to reports, after shares sank more than 50% since the fires began.

Hawaiian Electric, a company dating back to 1891 when Hawaii was still the Kingdom of Hawai’i, operates in Maui as Maui Electric. The utility has about 300 employees and contractors deployed to the restoration effort, according to a press release. Hawaiian Electric provides electricity for 95% of residents of the State of Hawaii on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Hawaii Island.

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