As Hawaii Burns, the Case for Undergrounding Grows Stronger
August 21, 2023
Image credit: Elkins Eye Visuals, Shutterstock

For much of the month of August, the Hawaiian island of Maui has been the scene of unprecedented wildfire. The town of Lahaina has been particularly devastated, with over 2,000 acres being burned since the blaze began early August 8. As of publication, over 110 people have been killed by these fires, making this the deadliest wildfire in American history since the 1918 Cloquet fire in Minnesota killed 453.

What makes the fire in Lahaina particularly troublesome are the circumstances that have been linked to the blaze’s origin. After being battered by straight-line winds in excess of 80 miles-per-hour, witnesses say a powerline snapped and fell to the ground, igniting tall grass on the roadside below.

The flames were fueled by high winds from Hurricane Dora to the south and drought conditions in nearly 20% of the island. In a matter of hours the fire had spread through the island town, destroying hundreds of homes and driving residents to the ocean to escape the inferno.

As Hawaii celebrates its 64th statehood anniversary on August 21, Governor Josh Green has described the fires as “the worst natural disaster in the history of Hawaii.”

Officials are working diligently to identify the true cause of the Lahaina fire, with the failure of overhead utility wires remaining a strong suspect. Investigators are also deciding whether or not Hawaiian Electric’s decision not to deenergize the power grid, despite worries about the possibility of wildfire, contributed to the devastation.

Hawaiian Electric is now facing a lawsuit claiming that the company did not initiate a critical emergency power shutoff, despite warning from the National Weather Service of dangerous wildfire conditions. An estimated 30 power lines were taken down by the strong wind gusts, many of which were still energized when they fell to the ground.

The Lahaina fire and subsequent legal proceedings, despite being recent and extreme examples, are not isolated incidents. According to Inside Climate News, over the last 30 years fire officials at the federal, state, and local levels fought nearly 33,000 wildfires across the country that were said to have been sparked by powerlines. 2018’s Camp Fire, the deadliest and most costly in the history of California, also resulted in a lawsuit against PG&E, one of the largest energy companies in the United States. The cause of the fire was attributed to a faulty overhead transmission line.

If eyewitness accounts in Lahaina prove to be accurate, which we will soon find out, we must consider the implications of an aging power grid left exposed to the increasingly volatile conditions of a changing climate.

“We’re not planning our infrastructure for the changes that we’re already seeing in the climate and expect to see moving into the future,” says Melissa Lott, the senior director of research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, in an interview with Time Magazine. “We’re still planning for the past and not the future in most cases.”

Climate change, the spread of invasive species, and changes in land use have significantly heightened the risk and magnitude of wildfires across the Western United States, influenced by changes in temperature, soil moisture, and vegetation density. These factors are intricately tied to climate fluctuations and changes, exacerbating the destruction of organic material within forests, subsequently fueling wildfires. This has resulted in a doubling of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the region. Research underscores that climate-related shifts lead to hotter and drier conditions, fostering increased drought and longer fire seasons, thus intensifying the risk of more fires that burn more land.

Additionally, increasing temperatures are leading to more frequent and intense hurricanes and tropical storms, increasing risk for windy conditions and toppling utility wires.

Overhead wires are exponentially more susceptible to failure during extreme weather events than underground utilities. This creates a ‘perfect storm’ for wildfire during dry and windy conditions. The only way to effectively reduce this risk at the utilities level is to drastically reconsider the current state of our country’s energy infrastructure.

Currently only 20% of America’s power grid is underground, leaving the remaining 80% exposed to above-ground elements that are not getting any less threatening. Aside from the mitigation of fire risk, undergrounding of utility lines reduces accidents, safety risks, and power outages due to downed lines. Undergrounding eliminates weather-related power outages and provides more reliable service to citizens.

Falling tree limbs, high winds, and heavy snow will not cause the same disruptions or damages to underground lines, which can have significant economic impacts. The President’s Council of Economic Advisers and the U.S. Department of Energy collaborated on a report in 2013 that estimated the total annual cost of weather-related power outages to be $18-$33 billion. Based on media reliability improvements, Scenic America calculates that nationwide, undergrounding could save $17.1 billion per year in lost economic activity due to power outages.

In addition, the U.S. utility industry spends $33 billion annually on “vegetation management,” which translates into cutting down or maiming trees to make way for overhead utility wires. Clearing vegetation around transmission lines can create soil runoff, and when chemical agents are used in vegetation control, these chemicals also leach into the water.

Finally, the undergrounding of overhead power lines contributes strongly to the visual improvement of communities and roadsides, providing opportunities to improve the aesthetics of our landscapes. Community beautification projects are easier to implement with fewer utility wires to work around, and projects like sidewalk widening and tree planting can also take place more seamlessly without the obstacle of power lines.

While all communities stand to benefit from undergrounding, historic towns and neighborhoods are especially threatened by blight from intrusive overhead wires. Protecting these communities and their special historic qualities will help promote economic resilience while also ensuring the safety of our nation’s cultural heritage.

Aesthetic and financial implications aside, our nation’s power grid remains at risk, which means we are all at risk. The people of Maui, California, Arizona, and other western states are seeing firsthand what most of us are only seeing through screens and reading in print. As our energy remains tied to a crumbling and exposed infrastructure, with pressures from a changing climate bearing down harder than ever before, the time to invest in energy resiliency is now.

Read more about how Scenic America is helping communities implement undergrounding initiatives on our website.