(Editor’s Note: In a new article published in The American Spectator, GAI research analyst Samuel Schaefer uncovers an inconvenient truth — Hawaii’s obsession with green energy policies directly affected the ferocity of the wildfires that tore through Maui last year, destroying homes, businesses, and the island’s environment.)

The tragic wildfire in Lahaina last August — America’s worst in more than a century, with nearly 100 deaths and 2,000 buildings and homes destroyed — left many on the lush island of Maui and beyond looking for answers. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green was quick to assign blame: “That level of destruction, and a fire hurricane, something new to us in this age of global warming, was the ultimate reason that so many people perished.” But was climate change really to blame?

This past week, on April 18, the Western Fire Chiefs Association published an after-action report that examined possible causes for the Maui wildfires’ unprecedented ferocity. Even though the report cited overgrown grass as a contributing factor, it failed to mention that green energy policies — such as solar panel incentives — led to the purchase of those now-fallow lands. In fact, the report stopped short of identifying any specific cause for the fires. Last week, Hawaii’s attorney general also published the Lahaina Fire Comprehensive Timeline report, which that failed to identify a culprit.

But numerous indications suggest that the very efforts that Hawaii zealously pushed to combat climate change — including an intense focus on electric vehicles (EVs) — exacerbated the environmental devastation caused by the Lahaina wildfire.

Hawaii’s Green Push and the Rise of EVs

In 2008, proudly green Hawaii launched the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, with the aim of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, among other goals. Hawaii thus became a model (or a “test bed,” as one U.S. Energy Department deputy put it) for the U.S. and the world.

Hawaii began to shift its economy toward green goals via a radical reorganization of the energy industry, starting with a new regulatory framework and a financial incentive structure. After the Paris Climate Accords took effect in 2016, Hawaii became the first state to enact legislation implementing the UN’s climate goals, making it a progressive poster child for the green technology revolution.

Hawaii has now spent billions of dollars installing a full spectrum of green technology, including solar panels, wind turbines, and acres of electricity storage facilities. Fatefully, more Hawaiians are driving EVs than ever before, and its EV adoption rate is the second-highest for any state after California.

In particular, the island of Maui, on which Lahaina is situated, achieved the highest concentration of EVs in the nation in 2015, and EV registrations surged 37 percent in Maui from March 2023 to March 2024.

One problem with EV batteries is that there are no long-term storage and recycling solutions on the remote islands of Hawaii. Thus, growing stockpiles of dead EV batteries threaten to turn Hawaii’s green energy dreams into an ecological nightmare, as the tragic Lahaina wildfire demonstrated.

A little-known development in the aftermath of the Lahaina fire was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) unprecedented focus on EV batteries. As of late 2023, Maui cleanup crews had removed 30 tons of lithium-ion batteries from 94 EV vehicles and 274 home and business power walls, according to the EPA.

The technical term for batteries catching on fire is “thermal runaway,” which occurs when a lithium-ion battery ignites and kicks off a chemical chain reaction. The lithium-ion batteries that power everything from cellphones to EVs have even been known to spontaneously catch fire.

“Once a lithium-ion battery is impacted and heated up, it’s like a time bomb,” an EPA official told reporters. “It only takes one in the pack. Once that starts, it can spread to the rest of the batteries. It can be quite a violent fire, and it’s very hard to put out with just water.”

With so many EV batteries in the burn zone, a massive thermal runaway would have heightened the intensity of the August 2023 fire. And when EV batteries combust, they release toxic chemicals into the air and groundwater.

So, how and why did Hawaii’s green energy ambitions backfire so tragically?

In 2010, Hawaii introduced an initiative called EV Ready, which offers grant and rebate programs to accelerate EV adoption by providing car shoppers with up to $5,000 in incentives to buy an EV and install its charging equipment.

Starting in 2012, public parking was free for drivers of electric vehicles. The free-parking EV program was so successful that by 2020 the state had to end it. More recently, drivers of large diesel vehicles were offered up to 45 percent off the price of a new EV equivalent via the Diesel Replacement Rebate program.

Hawaii’s largest utility company, Hawaiian Electric, has lobbied for more federal EV funding, sponsored events promoting EVs, and pushed for incentives for tourists to rent EVs.

Roughly two million tourists visit Maui annually and most make it to the town that was once the historical capital of Hawaii: Lahaina. Notably, four out of five tourists choose to rent a car during their stay. More than a decade ago, Maui decided to make electric vehicles part of the “vacation experience,” but it seems that thermal runaway was not even an afterthought because the island apparently had no plan to address the mounting problems posed by decommissioned EV batteries.

A Local Perspective

Rob Oakley, a 55-year-old native of Oahu, has worked in the auto industry for 40 years. His auto repair shop has been around for a while, but the Hawaii auto marketplace has changed radically over those years given the all-out push toward EVs. As increasing numbers of EVs are decommissioned, Oakley has noticed a big problem: dealing with all of these dead EV batteries.

Hawaii does not have a single facility to adequately recycle its 20-year buildup of lithium-ion batteries, according to Oakley. Instead, batteries pile up on palettes in scrap yards across the island. Oakley has been conducting a crusade to get a battery recycling center up and running — imploring everyone from a local car dealership to the governor of Hawaii to President Joe Biden to address the issue. All attempts were rebuffed or redirected down the bureaucratic rabbit hole, Oakley says.

In a February 2021 email to EPA deputy Wayne Roepe, Oakley complained that EV batteries were being dumped on roadsides and thrown into landfills. “I guess,” he added, “we will have to have a disaster happen before any of you losers in high offices will do anything about it.”

Last year, the disaster came.

In its spending spree on green energy — at least $4 billion earmarked for dozens of proposed green projects in 2020 alone — there is no evidence that Hawaii had considered cautionary measures such as EV battery disposal.

Local resident Kelli Lundgren shares Oakley’s concerns about the threats posed by the accumulation of toxic materials, especially in the aftermath of the Lahaina wildfire. Lundgren docks her boat just off Lahaina and has seen the devastation firsthand. Although she considers herself an environmentalist and appreciates the government’s green initiatives, Lundgren worries about the toxins from the Lahaina fire contaminating the water supply and coral reefs just off the coast.

“The government will make a plan with good intentions,” says Lundgren, “but is the local government going to use the money they’ve gotten from the federal government properly and efficiently?”

Her concern is well-founded. The EPA has warned that, in addition to being a fire risk, improperly disposed lithium-ion batteries can cause a host of other problems, including air and soil contamination, ecosystem degradation, and human health maladies caused by exposure to the battery contents such ascobalt, nickel, manganese, titanium, graphite, and flammable electrolytes.

Indeed, according to a lab that analyzed Lahaina ash samples for the Hawaii Department of Health, cobalt, nickel, and manganese — the critical metals used in EV batteries — have been detected in the samples. The health officials warn that the levels of cobalt, a potential carcinogen, are especially high.

What’s Next for Hawaii?

On a positive note, Hawaii may be finally awakening to its battery problem. Last month, a bill was quietly proposed that would create a recycling department for lithium-ion batteries, among other requirements.

As appealing as the green agenda may have been for the state, the Lahaina fire highlights the need for a review of EV batteries (particularly the lithium-ion type), which are glaringly absent from both the Western Fire Chiefs Association and the attorney general reports. Perhaps investigators should consider how Hawaii’s green obsession may have exacerbated the wildfires as they continue to search for the causes.

Hawaii set out to be an example for the globe, and perhaps it can still be — as a cautionary tale.

Samuel Schaefer is a Research Analyst at the Government Accountability Institute. He studied politics, philosophy, and English at Hillsdale College.