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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.
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.
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