Hawaiian Electric says it will deploy spotters to high-risk areas to watch for ignition, shut off power automatically in areas where a fault is detected and deploy more advanced technology as part of a refreshed strategy to monitor wildfire risk following devastating blazes on Maui in August.
The company rolled out its wildfire safety strategy and laid out actions it is taking to make the electric grid more resilient, especially in drought-stricken areas that weather officials say could lead to “out-of-season” fires during Hawaii’s typically wet months.
“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 Friday. “We are building upon our current strategy and implementing new and expanded practices to further reduce the risk of wildfires.”
The Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency recently named wildfires as the top hazard in the state as part of its recently released statewide hazard mitigation plan, due to factors such as ongoing drought conditions, dry vegetation and potential impacts to the community, cultural resources and economy.
The report described Maui County as the most vulnerable county to wildfire, with fire-prone grasslands surrounding many communities and unmanaged fallow land left by the sugar plantation that shuttered in 2016.
Hawaiian Electric first began developing its wildfire safety strategy in 2019 and continues to adapt it, with a focus on areas most at risk. The current plan is a three-phase strategy, according to the news release.
HECO’s response to wildfires would start with immediate actions, such as deploying spotters to strategic locations in risk areas to watch for ignition when the National Weather Service issues red flag warnings, which indicate a combination of warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds that together raise the risk of fire. Maui had been under a red flag warning when the Upcountry and Lahaina fires began on Aug. 8.
The company also said that if a fault or disturbance is detected on a circuit, power lines in risk areas would shut off automatically until crews visually confirm that it is safe to restore power. This may result in longer outages in some areas, including overnight outages, HECO said.
Over time, the company plans to deploy more advanced sensors, cameras and other technology to reduce the likelihood of longer outages and the need for visual observation.
The second phase of the strategy covers work that is underway or will soon be underway to harden the grid against extreme weather events and reduce potential hazards. This includes:
• Expanding inspections of poles and lines, using helicopters, drones, infrared and ground inspection.
• Addressing sag and tension in lines and adding spacers to reduce the potential for sparking.
• Switching from single-strand copper, which can become brittle over time, to aluminum wire or covered conductor in some areas.
• Replacing wooden poles with steel poles in some areas.
• Continuing vegetation management efforts adjacent to power lines.
• Using fault current indicators, quickly identifying the location of faults.
• Installing cameras and weather sensors in critical areas.
Hawaiian Electric said it is also advancing work on its $190 million grid resilience plan to harden against wildfires, hurricanes, tsunami and flooding, and to adapt to climate change impacts. Half of the multiyear program will be paid for by the federal government, with the other half matched by customers, pending approval by the state Public Utilities Commission.
The third phase of HECO’s strategy will be longer term and will use a variety of tools to address threats from extreme weather and climate change. Some of those tools are expected to include:
• Providing more precision in wildfire-focused weather forecasting and risk-modeling.
• Placing power lines underground in strategic at-risk areas.
• Expanding use of covered power lines, fast-acting fuses and fire-resistant poles and equipment.
• Seeking support for expanded hazard tree removal, wider rights-of-way and rights of access for clearing vegetation that threatens equipment.
• Continuing collaboration with fire departments and emergency management agencies to refine the overall strategy.
• Seeking more federal funding for wildfire defense programs.
Hawaiian Electric is currently facing multiple lawsuits, including one filed by Maui County, that claim the company did not properly maintain its equipment and bore responsibility for the Maui wildfires on Aug. 8. Hawaiian Electric took responsibility for the early-morning fire in Lahaina on Aug. 8, which it said appears to have been sparked by downed power lines, but it laid blame on the county for leaving a fire that was believed extinguished until it flared up and raced through Lahaina town.
The fire has spurred debate over whether Hawaiian Electric should have shut off the power as a precautionary measure. Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura cautioned in the wake of the fires that preemptive shutoff programs are “controversial,” as they could create challenges for vulnerable customers with specialized medical equipment, as well as for first responders who need electricity to power water pumps and other essential functions.
The company, however, is considering how to safely roll out such a program. On Friday, Hawaiian Electric said that it has begun talks with government, emergency response and community members on designing a public safety power shutoff program that would allow each county to ensure public safety when power is shut off, potentially for multiple days. The program would cut electricity in certain areas before extreme weather events.
Extensive coordination with the government, first responders, essential service providers and the community would be required for the program, HECO said. Enhanced technology, weather forecasting, customer education, plans for backup for critical customers and community hubs and resources would also need to be in place.
As the phases of the wildfire safety strategy are successfully executed, a public safety power shutoff program could become the tool of last resort, not the first option, HECO said.