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Hawaiian Electric readies plan for cutting power amid fire risks

HONOLULU — Hawaiian Electric Co. is preparing to roll out its plan for proactive power shutdowns for areas at high risk for wildfires during extreme weather.

A so-called Public Safety Power Shutoff is when a utility “cuts power to electrical lines as a measure of last resort in the interest of public safety,” according to a presentation by Erik Taka­yesu, a former senior vice president for asset strategy and planning for Southern California Edison, at Hawaiian Electric’s first-ever Wildfire Safety Symposium in Hilo on April 10-11.

“While PSPS may reduce the risk of utility-associated wildfires, PSPS events can leave communities and essential facilities without power, which brings its own risks and hardships,” read Takayesu’s first slide. “Some areas that are prone to dry windy conditions may experience higher frequency of PSPS events.”

“For utilities that did this, it’s a bit of a journey,” Takayesu said. “I do want to recognize that as we begin this in Hawai‘i, there is going to be ongoing development of capabilities. As those capabilities develop, the process, and the mitigations, get better and better over time.”

Hawaiian Electric hopes to introduce its PSPS plan at the end of the month, with a targeted implementation date of July 1.

Honolulu officials first learned of Hawaiian Electric’s plan at the wildfire symposium in Hilo. Mayor Rick Blangiardi was briefed on the plan to utilize PSPS during a Wildfire Preparedness Working Group meeting on April 19.

“Since that briefing, the city and its first responder agencies, including the Honolulu Fire Department and Honolulu Police Department, as well as the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, have been actively coordinating ahead of HECO’s planned implementation,” said Scott Humber, Blan­giardi’s communications director. “HECO will be actively working with the City and County of Honolulu on our planning going forward and has committed to utilizing Public Safety Power Shutoffs only as a last resort, when there is imminent and significant wildfire risk.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 8, 2023, wildfires on Maui, which killed 101 people in Lahaina and left thousands homeless, the utility was criticized for not having a such a power shutoff plan.

Under the PSPS plan being developed, the conditions that would prompt a power shutdown include high winds, low humidity and dry-fuel conditions susceptible to large wildfires. Topography and proximity to communities are also considered when determining PSPS risk.

“PSPS events may be triggered by a red (or yellow) flag warning that indicate high fire risk conditions. Notifications are made to public safety partners and customers when a PSPS event is imminent and underway,” according to Hawaiian Electric’s presentation. “Utilities and strategic partners and stakeholders can work together to minimize the impacts of PSPS. Power is restored once lines are patrolled after fire threat subsides.”

Hawaiian Electric representatives are meeting every Friday at the Honolulu Fire Department’s headquarters with firefighters, police officers, emergency medical services technicians, emergency management officials and other stakeholders.

Hawaiian Electric is using the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ current wildfire risk maps to help target the areas of each island where the risk is highest and PSPS may be needed.

“The good thing is, others have been through this. We’re not having to reinvent the wheel,” Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric’s vice president of government and community relations, told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser. “Obviously, we want to minimize disruptions as much as we can while also doing what needs to be done to keep communities safe. We really want to emphasize that this is a tactic of last resort, but we want to be ready if we do need to do it.”

Hawaiian Electric officials say there’s no legal prohibition on shutting off power for the safety of the public, and it doesn’t require legislation or administrative approval.

“What it does require is coordination and collaboration with many stakeholders to ensure that if we do conduct a PSPS, it’s done in a way that keeps people safe,” Kelly said.

Over 100 first responders, emergency management organizations, government agencies, service providers and other stakeholders met at Hawaiian Electric’s wildfire symposium.

Takayesu delivered his presentation as part of the rollout of “Hawaiian Electric’s Wildfire Safety Strategy,” led by Marc Asano, HECO’s director of integrated grid planning.

After analysis, risk assessments, grid design changes, system hardening, vegetation management, review and guidance from the state Public Utilities Commission and other considerations, the utility’s goal is to launch its wildfire safety strategy from 2025 to 2027, according to Hawaiian Electric’s presentation.

The electrical utility was criticized for not having a PSPS in place prior to the Aug. 8 wildfires. That fact was often repeated amid the hundreds of lawsuits arising from the fatal fires.

Utilities in California and other wildfire-prone areas of the country implemented plans to shut down power during peak fire weather. Hawaiian Electric, using mainland consultants who helped create PSPS plans for other utilities, began putting together a plan in the aftermath of the blaze.

Takayesu, now a consultant hired by Hawaiian Electric, shared examples of how PSPS evolved at his former employer, like the deployment of 1,600 weather stations throughout its grid. Prior to the stations, the utility relied on observations from workers.

“We have about 10,000 miles of distribution lines … only so many ways people can go out there and look at conditions in the field,” he said. “So we really had to lean on the development of these types of networks to be able to stream information. But you can see that this process takes time.”
Source: The Garden Island

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