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Utility Company Negligence in Hawaii:

Blazing new evidence seems to point to Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) as the cause of multiple fires that devastated Maui in August of 2023. Now, neglect to maintain the structural integrity of grid infrastructure, neglect to have a clear emergency plan in place, and neglect to clear away brushland are thought to be the main culprits behind one of America’s deadliest wildfires. The utility company ignored local residents’ concerns about hazards for years leading up to this event. In tandem, the National Weather Service had also warned HECO that high winds during Hurricane Dora would create a high-risk situation for downed power lines. 

Even after the first fire broke out, Hawaiian Electric failed to shut off the power grid. As a result, more lines went down and the fires spread over the course of several days. When questioned about their lack of response, it turns out HECO had no emergency shutoff plan. As residents file multiple lawsuits against the utility company, one thing has become abundantly clear to the American public. Negligent utility companies pose a real threat to public safety. 

The Big PictureUtility Company Negligence

In California, we are no strangers to the threat of utility-related wildfires. More than half of California’s deadly wildfires are attributed to utility infrastructure, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison are three of the largest utility companies serving CA. They’ve been under public scrutiny for causing thousands of wildfires in the 21st century. After losing multiple negligence lawsuits, Californian utility companies have adopted safety power shutoffs as part of standard practice. HECO would be wise to follow suit, as Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have also done. However, this temporary solution begs the question, how do communities adapt to regular power shutoffs? Are there other solutions to utility-related wildfires? 

Some have suggested rebuilding underground power lines, but utility companies are fighting back. Meanwhile, we need a permanent solution that can save lives in any kind of emergency. During the Maui fires, for example, many Hawaiians were left without any form of power for days. We believe that the best solution homeowners can choose for themselves is microgrid technology. If power shutoffs must become a normal and preventative safety practice, then we must have backup energy systems in place. 

A New Paradigm

As natural disasters occur with greater severity, electrical utility infrastructure is degrading across the United States. Some of the first electrical lines date all the way back to the 1880s. Our utility infrastructure expanded in the 1960s, making a majority of our electrical distribution systems over seventy years old.  Today’s world is a very different time and place, with new threats on the horizon that leave communities vulnerable. 

Many communities and businesses are responding to these threats with microgrid systems, such as solar panels, batteries, and backup generators. Using microgrid systems, people can continue to operate independently from the utility grid during emergencies. Rather than pouring money into rebuilding an inherently flawed system, we believe in building a smarter system. Decentralized energy production can protect communities from both domestic and foreign threats to public safety. Innovations in energy distribution and storage, such as localized energy plants, could eventually produce enough energy to power an entire region through a blackout.

Utility Company NegligenceAccountability for Utility Companies

Taking it one step further, it’s time that we prompt officials to enact new legislation that promotes public safety. Currently, living fully off-grid is illegal in most heavily populated states and municipalities. Laws often protect the private interests of utility companies by requiring solar systems to be grid-tied. When considering off-grid solutions always double-check local regulations to make sure you are following utility requirements. 

We propose the idea that communities, and not utility companies, should get to decide if and when they disconnect from the grid. When utility companies fail to address the complaints of homeowners, their customers should have an option to disconnect service temporarily, or even permanently. Holding utility companies accountable would encourage them to be proactive when it comes to risk management. Let local legislators know that we are serious about taking a stand against utility company negligence.


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Staff, CBSColorado.com. “Lawsuits Filed against Xcel Energy in Connection with Marshall Fire Combined into One Lawsuit.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 7 Sept. 2023, www.cbsnews.com/colorado/news/lawsuits-filed-against-xcel-energy-marshall-fire-combined-one-lawsuit/.

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