POWER GRID & WILDFIRESShutting Off Power to Reduce Wildfire Risk on Windy Days Isn’t a Simple Decision – an Energy Expert Explains the Trade-Offs Electric Utilities Face

By Tim C. Lieuwen

Published 31 August 2023

Maui County is suing Hawaiian Electric, claiming the utility was negligent for not shutting off power as strong winds hit the island in the hours before the city of Lahaina burned. Electricity is critical infrastructure and a foundational bedrock to many other services, so utilities have to balance the risk of keeping power on with the risks created by shutting power off.

Maui County is suing Hawaiian Electricclaiming the utility was negligent for not shutting off power as strong winds hit the island in the hours before the city of Lahaina burned. While the cause of the devastating Aug. 8, 2023, wildfire is still under investigation, forecasters had warned that powerful winds were expected, and West Maui had exceptionally dry conditions that put it at high risk for wildfires.

In many cases, however, deciding to shut off power isn’t as simple is as it might sound. The Conversation asked Tim Lieuwen, executive director of the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech, about the risks and trade-offs utilities have to weigh in deciding how to respond during fire-risk conditions.

Why are utilities so often suspected in fires?
There are a lot of ways that utility lines, particularly high-voltage lines, can spark fires.

If tree branches are too close to the lines, electricity can arc between the line and the tree. Old equipment can set off sparks. If the weather gets really hot, power lines can sag and touch dry grass or trees. If there’s a lot of wind, that can push a power line into tree branches or damage equipment.

All of those can and have been fire-starters.

In California, a state audit found that electrical power caused 10% of all wildfires and was responsible for nearly 20% of all acres burned from 2016 to 2020. Those were also some of the most destructive fires in state history – including the 2018 fire that destroyed the town of Paradise. Pacific Gas & Electric pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in that case and one felony count of unlawfully starting a fire.

Do utilities have a responsibility for fire safety?
That’s the question at the heart of litigation and debates.

Public utilities’ obligations can vary state to state. In general, regulated utilities have a duty to provide safe, affordablereliable power to their customers. That can mean making tough choices.

Let’s say it’s really windy, dry and hot – ideal conditions for spreading a wildfire. The utility can shut off power, but that means people don’t have air conditioning in what may be extreme heat. People with health issues – who might need oxygen, for example – might not be able to run essential medical devices.