HECO indicates it could turn to ratepayers to help cover extensive fire rebuilding costs
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaiian Electric may be asking customers to pay for damage and recovery from the Maui wildfires — even though many say HECO is to blame.
Whether that will happen could depend on whether the company’s neglect or negligence contributed to the destruction.
Hawaiian Electric, including its Maui subsidiary, is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, which decides what customers will pay for power. Now the pressure is building on PUC to investigate HECO’s responsibility before and during the fires.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed, including one by Maui County, accusing HECO of sparking the fire after failing to take steps to harden the grid against catastrophic wind events.
On the day of the fire, downed equipment also slowed evacuations.
Former PUC Consumer Advocate Jeff Ono said HECO appears to have failed to meet key obligations, like managing overgrowth near lines and installing some safety equipment, as shown in videos of sparking wires on the ground.
“There is equipment that should be on those transmission lines, to prevent those lines from short circuiting and being cut and remaining live on the on the ground,” Ono said.
“My understanding is that really shouldn’t have happened, if it did.”
Edmund Clark, a retired renewable energy executive who lives on Maui, added that grid “needed work” and that some lines should have been underground. “We have a lot of old poles here, we have conductors that could be spaced further apart,” he said.
HECO has denied responsibility for causing the blaze. And in a PUC filing last month, the utility said it may request rate increases to pay for damage to its equipment, including 400 poles and 300 transformers and the labor to fix them and restore power.
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Life of the Land is a party to a PUC proceeding in which HECO and its subsidiaries are requesting $189 million for hardening their grids against disaster, especially high wind events. Including things like identifying key lines and locations to bury or rebuild stronger. The PUC hasn’t approved it yet.
Life of the Land Executive Director Henry Curtis said the non-profit has filed a letter with the PUC urging it to open an investigation into HECOs responsibility.
“The PUC has to determine whether ratepayers should pay to rebuild this structures that fallen or whether it’s the responsibility of the utility because they did something wrong,” Curtis said.
He added HECO has yet to file a report of an “accident” involving its equipment, which it did after blackouts following other incidents.
He said an investigation would look into whether HECO kept its maintenance promises.
“Now the question is, how many of the poles in Lahaina had been inspected? When were they inspected? What was determined about whether they needed to be replaced? We don’t have that information,” Curtis said.
But some experts say the PUC also bears some responsibility for failing to push HECO to strengthen its grid, especially after a 2018 wildfire near Lahaina.
Former energy executive Clark said the state and PUC emphasis on ending the use of fossil fuels may have distracted the industry from disaster preparation.
“There’s a certain amount of renewable that absolutely should be put in and, and reduce co2 emissions,” Clark said.
“But you hit a point of diminishing returns, and you hit a point that you really want to give a higher priority to your grid and making it smaller, stable, more reliable, and less chance to start a fire.”
In its filing, HECO reminded the PUC it will need a lot of money to rebuild on Maui.
It also said after the disaster, the threat that HECO would be liable led to its credit rating being downgraded and its stock plummeting.
HECO said its ability to borrow money might improve if the PUC keeps open the possibility that ratepayers can be hit with part of the bill.
The PUC does not comment on pending cases.
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