US House subcommittee holding hearing Thursday to investigate electric infrastructure’s role in Lahaina fire
The US House Committee on Energy & Commerce is holding a subcommittee fact-finding hearing on Thursday in Washington, D.C., to investigate the role of electric infrastructure in the “catastrophic Maui fire” in Lahaina on Aug. 8 that killed at least 97 people.
“We must come to a complete understanding of how this disaster started to ensure Hawaiʻi and other states are prepared to prevent and stop other deadly wildfires,” Chairs Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Morgan Griffith said in a joint statement on Sept. 15 when announcing the hearing of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
“We seek a fuller understanding of the role, if any, of the electric infrastructure in this tragic event.”
Two weeks earlier, Rodgers, Griffith and Chair Jeff Duncan sent a letter to Hawaiian Electric, the Hawaiʻi Public Utilities Commission and the Hawai’i State Energy Office requesting more information about the sequence of events regarding the Lahaina fire; actions taken to minimize fire risk and mitigate invasive grasses and other vegetation; and funding received under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
Officials at these agencies and the electric company will discuss their provided information at the hearing, which begins at 4 a.m. HST and can be watched here.
Witnesses who will testify:
- Leodoloff R. Asuncion, Jr., Chairman of the Hawai’i Public Utilities Commission
- Mark B. Glick, Chief Energy Officer of the Hawai’i State Energy Office
- Shelee Kimura, President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric
“We all want to learn about what happened on Aug. 8 so that it never happens
again,” Kimura said in her written testimony delivered to the committee before the hearing.
Her testimony describes this sequence on Aug. 8:
“A fire at 6:30 a.m., the ‘Morning Fire,’ appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds. The Maui County Fire Department responded to this morning fire and reported that by 9 a.m. it was ‘100% contained.’ The fire department later determined it had been ʻextinguishedʻ and left the scene in the early afternoon.
“At about 3 p.m., a time when all of Hawaiian Electric’s power lines in West Maui had been de-energized for more than six hours, a second fire, the ‘Afternoon Fire,’ began in the same area. The cause of this Afternoon Fire that devastated Lahaina has not been determined.”
Maui County filed a law suit in state court against Hawaiian Electric Industries, the holding company for Hawaiian Electric, and its subsidiaries. The suit alleges that the utility failed to shut off its power lines despite warnings of dangerous weather conditions and a high likelihood that overhead transmission lines would contact the surrounding vegetation. This lawsuit also argues that energized downed power lines ignited the fires.
Maui County also alleges the defendants failed to properly maintain and protect their electric infrastructure by not taking precautions such as removing nearby vegetation and insulating power lines.
More than a dozen other lawsuits have been filed against Hawaiian Electric Industries for causing the fires.
But no official cause of the deadly Lahaina fire — or the other fires on Maui that day — has been publicly identified yet. And, in a memorandum sent to members and staff of the subcommittee holding the hearing, it said: “Debate over the cause of the fires persists.”
The Maui Fire Department and the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives National Response Team will investigate the cause and origin of the fire.
The Office of Hawaiʻi Attorney General Anne E. Lopez selected UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute to assess state and county agencies’ preparation for and response to the fires.
The Hawaiʻi Public Utilities Commission may also begin its own investigation after the Hawaiʻi Attorney General and the ATF investigations conclude.
“Speculation – accompanied by news reports and eyewitness accounts – about the cause of the fires and about responsibility for their catastrophic spread continues,” the memo said. “… Maui County maintains that Hawaiian Electric mismanaged its power lines. Nonnative grasses have also proliferated on Maui in recent years, potentially fueling the rapid spread of fires. Others assert that Hawaiian Electric failed to prepare its equipment for the threat of wildfires and to adopt appropriate emergency plans.”
Topics that are expected to be discussed at the hearing include:
- The sequence of events surrounding the Maui fires.
- Utility infrastructure conditions that may have exacerbated the risk of a catastrophic fire.
- Hawaiian Electric’s actions and plans to address fire risks, maintain its equipment, and secure the grid against intensifying threats such as wildfires.
- The status of any efforts to harden and protect Maui’s grid against wildfires.
- Prioritization of fire safety precautions among competing priorities for grid modernization and improvement.
“I hope we can start to find solutions that will help protect Hawai‘i and the rest of the nation from the increasing threats of familiar natural disasters like hurricanes and those that we have rarely experienced, including droughts that can fuel catastrophic wildfires on tropical islands,” Kimura said in her written testimony
Glick, the stateʻs Chief Energy Office, said in his written testimony: “We wish to reiterate our appreciation for the support from the US Department of Energy and the Biden Administration in approving $95 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to harden Hawaiʻi’s electric grid.”
There has been criticism that funding has gone to expand green energy in Hawaiʻi at the expense of taking care of existing utility infrastructure and mitigating against wildfires.
“We have seen no evidence thus far that indicates renewables development has restricted available funds for vegetation management,” Glick said in his testimony.
“We expect that the expansion of renewable and distributed energy resources will contribute to the reliability of Hawai‘i’s energy system. For instance, micro-grids powered by renewable resources may support wildfire risk prevention, mitigation and response.”
He said short-term actions would include evaluating additional recommendations for vegetation management and public safety power shutoffs and the availability of new technology to limit wildfires and their adverse effects.
Some of the long-term approaches could include advanced wildfire mitigation planning, investment in technology and data, and exploration of building standards and research to support lifeline sectors, vulnerable populations, communities and the energy system, he said.
“We also recognize that much of the problem is located on private property which limits our options as a matter of law,” he said. “Therefore, the solutions will require a shared commitment of private and public sector will and resources to adequately safeguard our essential energy infrastructure.”
Asuncion, Jr., Chairman of the Hawai’i Public Utilities Commission, said in his written testimony: “The devastation of the August wildfires should never happen again. … We are working with the utilities to take immediate actions to meet this objective, such as by identifying and implementing any necessary changes to operational protocols on Red Flag Warning days, and reviewing the utilities’ approach to determining whether power lines should be built above or below ground.”
But he also points out that Maui’s residential electricity cost is $0.43/kWh in 2022, nearly three times the national average.
“It is important, however, that the Commission continue to emphasize customer-centricity and remember throughout this critical effort that many families in Hawaii already struggle to pay their electric bills,” Asuncion said. “On Maui, the average monthly residential electric bill was approximately $216.00 in 2022, the biggest portion of which is fossil fuels, making up about half the bill.
“The Commission has sought to balance the interconnected and critical priorities of affordability, reliability, energy independence and resilience in our decision-making and will continue to do so. We take the challenge of striking that balance seriously and understand its importance to our state, particularly in light of recent events.”
He said: “We are also carefully monitoring the evolving landscape and considering what measures are necessary to keep the lights on for Hawaiʻi customers affordably and safely.
Representatives Ed Case and Jill Tokuda, both of Hawaiʻi, will be at the hearing.
For the agenda and witness written testimony, click here.