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It’s still unclear what caused the wildfires that have left more than 100 people in Maui dead. But the state’s electric utility is emerging as a suspect, and it’s raising questions about the safety of the power grid around the rest of the U.S.

Hawaii National Guard search and rescue workers assisting in the recovery efforts of Lahaina.
Hawaii National Guard search and rescue workers assisting in the recovery efforts in Lahaina. Credit: Andrew Jackson / U.S. National Guard

In the days since the wildfires were doused, evidence has emerged that suggests a Hawaiian Electric power line fell during high winds and sparked at least one of the deadly Maui fires. A video showed a bright flash in the woods of a bird sanctuary, and soon after, the trees are on fire. The incident happened at the same time the utility’s power infrastructure recorded a significant disturbance — and comes after industry observers warned of the fragility of Hawaii’s grid.

Hawaiian Electric now faces several lawsuits that allege it’s responsible for the fires, and shares in the utility have since plummeted. It’s now considering restructuring in bankruptcy, similar to what California’s Pacific Gas & Electric did as it faced $30 billion in liabilities for wildfires in its state.

But even if Hawaiian Electric is found to blame and forced to compensate fire victims, that doesn’t necessarily mean relief for its customers. As Grist reports, massive lawsuit payouts can make it hard for utilities to afford power line undergrounding and other grid upgrades needed to prevent future fires. That often means utilities pass the costs of those upgrades along to customers.

Industry observers say Hawaiian Electric has known for years that worsening weather endangered its power grid. But it failed to upgrade equipment and prepare for emergencies, even as state and local officials pushed it to do so.

And as climate change increases the severity of extreme weather, the whole disaster raises questions about just how safe the rest of the United States’ aging power grid is as well. 

More clean energy news

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⚖️ Carbon capture ≠ environmental justice: Environmental justice advocates, including the White House’s own advisory board, say the Biden administration is forcing carbon capture and storage projects on disadvantaged communities that have disproportionately suffered from pollution. (E&E News)

🔎 Zoom in: Appalachian states want to build carbon-capture-reliant hydrogen hubs. Would that give a lifeline to fossil fuels as the region tries to decarbonize? (Energy News Network)

👨‍🏭 A clean energy manufacturing boom: More than 100 new clean energy, battery and electric vehicle manufacturing facilities and expansions have been announced since the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage a year ago. (Canary Media)

🌬️ Wind power in the Great Lakes? A pilot offshore wind project in Lake Erie could be a test case for future Great Lakes wind projects. (Guardian)

🏭 America’s biggest emitters: The richest 10% of U.S. households produce 40% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, reports a study that takes into account how people live, travel and make money. (The Hill)

🏗️ Efficient buildings pay off: Making buildings more energy efficient could lower the cost of decarbonizing the United States’ power supply by as much as a third, national lab researchers and a consulting group find. (Canary Media)

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Kathryn brings her extensive editorial background to the Energy News Network team, where she oversees the early-morning production of ENN’s five email digest newsletters as well as distribution of ENN’s original journalism with other media outlets. From documenting chronic illness’ effect on college students to following the inner workings of Congress, Kathryn has built a broad experience in her more than five years working at major publications including The Week Magazine. Kathryn holds a Bachelor of Science in magazine journalism and information management and technology from Syracuse University.