Hawaii’s top public utility officials and the president of Hawaiian Electric are expected to testify Thursday in a congressional hearing about the role the electrical grid played in last month’s deadly Maui wildfire.
Watch the hearing in the player above.
Members of a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee are expected to question the utility officials about how the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century began — and whether the electrical grid in Lahaina was safe and properly maintained.
The fire killed at least 97 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, mostly homes. It first erupted at 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 8, when strong winds appeared to cause a Hawaiian Electric powerline to fall, igniting dry brush and grass near a large subdivision.
Among those expected to testify are Hawaiian Electric CEO Shelee Kimura, Hawaii Public Utilities Commission Chair Leodoloff Asuncion Jr. and Hawaii Chief Energy Officer Mark Glick.
Energy and Commerce Committee chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers; Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee chair Rep. Morgan Griffith; and Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee chair Rep. Jeff Duncan — all Republicans — questioned Kimura, Asuncion and Glick about the cause of the fire in a letter sent Aug. 30.
The letter included 10 questions about the sequence of events on the day of the fire, efforts to mitigate fire risks posed by the electrical grid, the fire investigation and other issues. The lawmakers said that a complete understanding of how the fire started is needed to ensure it doesn’t happen again anywhere in the U.S.
“Information is also coming to light about actions taken — or not taken — by implicated entities in hardening and modernizing the electric grid of Maui,” they wrote in the letter.
In written testimony provided to the committee before the hearing, Kimura focused on the challenges of providing electricity on an isolated island chain, and her feelings of responsibility and connection with the people of Hawaii. She did not discuss any fire mitigation efforts the utility has taken or provide new details about the events surrounding the fire.
“It was difficult to leave my island home this week when the disaster response efforts are still ongoing. It feels like leaving your family in their time of need. But I hope that as I carry out my kuleana here, it helps you carry out your important kuleana,” Kimura wrote, using a Hawaiian word that she said loosely translates to having a deep sense of responsibility that is both an obligation and a privilege.
She also wrote that running the utility requires a complex and consequential balance of pursuing safe, reliable power at a reasonable cost.
Hawaiian Electric serves about 70,000 customers on Maui and nearly half a million customers statewide, including the Department of Defense, which is its largest customer.
“We all want to learn about what happened on August 8 so that it never happens again,” Kimura wrote.
Kimura has acknowledged that Hawaiian Electric’s downed lines caused the initial fire, but she wrote that the fire department said it extinguished that blaze and that the lines had been de-energized for more than six hours when the fire flared up in the same area again. She called the 3 p.m. blaze the “Afternoon Fire,” implying it was separate from the morning blaze.
“The cause of this Afternoon Fire that devastated Lahaina has not been determined,” she wrote. “We are working tirelessly to figure out what happened, and we are cooperating fully with federal and state investigators.”
Whether the lines were fully de-energized — meaning they were not transmitting any electrical voltage — might still be in question, however. At least one Lahaina resident told the Associated Press that their power came back on around 2 p.m., and Maui Police Chief John Pelletier has said that his officers were trying to keep people from driving over live power lines later that afternoon as residents fled the burning town.
Asuncion Jr., the chair of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, said in written testimony that the PUC began tying Hawaiian Electric’s power rates in part to its performance in 2021, moving away from a traditional method of setting rates based on the cost of providing service.
The switch was designed to help the utility commission to determine whether it was functioning as intended by creating “stringent oversight mechanisms,” and allowed the commission to penalize Hawaiian Electric for poor reliability. It also was intended to give Hawaiian Electric more flexibility to manage funds in the way the company thinks will best meet objectives, Asuncion wrote.
Asuncion said the PUC is working with Hawaiian Electric to identify and implement any needed operating changes for high-wind days, and is reviewing the company’s approach to whether power lines should be built above or below ground.
“The devastation of the August wildfires should never happen again,” Asuncion wrote. “In thinking about this priority, the Commission aims to ensure to the greatest extent possible that electric utility operations, infrastructure, and equipment in Hawaii are safe, reliable, and resilient to natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding.”
Hawaii has only two electric utilities: Hawaiian Electric, which is the sole provider for Maui, and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.
Residential electricity in Maui costs about 43 cents per kilowatt-hour — that’s three times the national average, he said, with the average monthly bill reaching about $216 in 2022. The utility’s financial integrity is related to its ability to provide the level of maintenance and upgrades that are critical for a safe electrical grid, he said.
Glick, the chief energy officer for Hawaii’s State Energy Office, also submitted written testimony detailing some efforts to identify the risk of wildfires and other natural disasters to the energy grid, and plans to eventually create a microgrid system, where small portions of the electrical grid could be shut off for safety reasons while keeping the rest of the system operational.