Some low-income families living with no electricity, HECO proposes assistance

Darren Pai
Darren Pai
Capt. Terry Seelig
Capt. Terry Seelig

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - From cooking with charcoal grills to lighting up candles, fire officials say living without electricity poses certain risks. Hawaiian Electric Company says it understands the struggles some families are going through and is awaiting approval to offer credits to low-income customers.

Two house fires. Two separate families. Both were living in their homes without any electricity.

"We really understand that times are tough," Darren Pai, HECO, said. "Everyone is having to watch their budgets and see how far they can make things go. So we understand that sometimes people find themselves in difficult situations."

The cause of a Christmas Eve fire at a home on Kaukamana Road in Waianae was undetermined. Neighbors say the family that lived there previously had its electricity cut off.

Janet Billimon and her family were living by candlelight at their home on Fourth Street in Pearl City. Investigators say one of their candles was to blame for a blaze there Thanksgiving Day.

Fire officials say it's common for people to use candles as emergency lighting during power outages. But they discourage residents from relying on them as an alternative light source.

"Battery-operated lanterns are safer," Capt. Terry Seelig, Honolulu Fire Department, said. "Glow sticks are a possibility. But I can understand the difficulty there. The candles are probably the least-expensive alternative."

Lighting isn't the only challenge facing people in homes without electricity.

"They're also going to have cooking needs. That could also lead to some dangerous practices of health and safety," Seelig said. "Refrigeration problems. So there's a myriad of problems associated with having no electricity that just make the risk of living in the structure greater."

Hawaiian Electric Company says it tries to help low-income customers by referring them to social service agencies like Helping Hands Hawaii. HECO is also awaiting approval from the state Public Utilities Commission to offer a new program called "Lifeline Rates" to qualifying customers.

"It would provide a credit on their monthly electric bills ranging from $25 to $35," Pai said. "It's going to help folks out, but it's also designed to make sure that they still have an incentive to use energy as efficiently as possible because their bills will still be based on how much electricity they use."

HECO's been waiting awhile for the PUC to sign off on the program. The application was filed in April 2009.

If approved, "Lifeline Rates" would be open to those enrolled in one of three government programs -- the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income.

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