Friday, September 01, 2023

Blame, Trade-Offs, and the Maui Wildfires

Anthony Gill

 A week after the devastating wildfires on Maui, accusations for who and/or what was to blame for the disaster are sweeping through the media faster than the flames that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina. The desire to seek blame is a natural human instinct. Indeed, finding fault can be useful in identifying the source of serious problems that we hope to avoid in the future. However, as punitive action is likely to follow, it is important that we “get it right” when it comes to assigning blame properly.

...Wasting no time in pointing fingers, media pundits began to blame global warming within 24 hours (see here and here). Hawaii’s governor Josh Green asserted this cause shortly thereafter. 

Fortunately, cooler heads began to prevail and other causes for the conflagration were offered, including the presence of invasive grasses that are more prone to fire and specific meteorological patterns that produced high winds that are not uncommon on the islands this time of the year. University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass provided a detailed explanation of the short-term weather (not long-term climate) conditions that created a perfect storm for the fires. Ironically, a wetter and cooler spring in Maui (not predicted by the climate disaster models) allowed for extensive growth of grasses that became highly flammable in the drier summer season.

...In a Wall Street Journal article published on August 17, Katherine Blunt revealed that Hawaiian Electric, the public utility serving Maui, had known about the inadequate condition of their utility poles for at least four years. 

...It is becoming clear that Hawaiian Electric (HE) shares some responsibility for the fire. The inevitable lawsuits will determine how much of that responsibility the company will shoulder legally. But might there be more blame to be distributed? 

The aforementioned Wall Street Journal article on the role of HE revealed a valuable clue as to why the company may have been so slow in updating their utility poles and other infrastructure: 

Since PG&E’s bankruptcy [resulting from the Camp Fire tragedy], Hawaiian Electric has made reference in regulatory filings to the risks of power-line fires, but it waited years to take significant action, documents and interviews show. During that period, the company was undertaking a state-mandated shift to renewable energy [emphasis added].

Read that again; it’s important. Hawaiian Electric knew about their aging utility line infrastructure, but they were trying to comply with government mandates to shift to sources of sustainable power.


And for those who argued yesterday that we should keep the current structure to keep politics out of the equation, please read this:

If the leaders of HE knew about the problems with their aging infrastructure (and particularly the utility poles) why didn’t they take action? The answer may be that as a public utility, responsible to a governing board and political pressure, they faced repeated calls to engage in policies that were on the top of politician’s agendas. 

Replete with beautiful beaches, mountains, and lush forests, Hawaii not surprisingly has a very strong environmental movement. With “climate change” making headlines daily, and efforts to “save the planet” manifesting in policies as trivial as banning plastic straws, it is perfectly understandable that HE’s board of directors would divert funding and manpower to efforts that played well in the media.

Government mandates to invest in renewable energy meant that something else would have to be de-emphasized. That something appears to have been utility pole maintenance.


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