Electric companies adopt high-tech solutions to wildfires

Published on September 10, 2020 by Hil Anderson

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Electric utility companies on high-alert for potential wildfires are turning to drones and even satellites for a hawk’s-eye view of the miles of transmission wires and hundreds of transformers and other pieces of equipment that could spark a catastrophic blaze on a windy day.

Strong winds, particularly in remote backcountry areas, can send branches flying into transmission lines or even topple power poles and the wires themselves. The resulting arcing and broken wires can ignite dry brush and send a fast-moving wildfire roaring though forest lands, towns and subdivisions in the blink of an eye, and leave utilities on the hook for billions of dollars in damages and liability.

A panel at this week’s Edison Electric Institute (EEI) Virtual Leadership Conference said a key to preventing such tragic equipment breakdowns is the ability to monitor their far-flung grid around the clock in order to either head off equipment problems before they occur or shut off the current altogether in areas where weather conditions pose a dire threat of fire.

“One of the most effective tools we have found to fight wildfires is technology,” said moderator and Sempra Energy Group President Kevin Sagara. “Technology has enabled us to better predict where wildfires are likely to occur, take preventative action against them, and better communicate with our crews and our customers ahead of and during events.”

Southern California-based Sempra has launched a no-holds-barred campaign to create high-tech surveillance systems to monitor weather conditions and equipment status, allowing their operations department to better prioritize preventive maintenance and also take decisive early actions when the weather turns ominous and the first curls of smoke are detected.

“Technology has become a critical tool in our arsenal and one that keeps evolving,” said Sagara.

Drones and Satellites
For many years, utilities have relied on helicopter patrols and their trusty linemen in the field to keep an eye on the wires and poles for encroaching trees and for malfunctioning equipment that could cause a localized failure. Drones equipped with cameras have added a new tool for getting an up-close look at power lines without having to send a crew to the top of a pole or transmission tower.

“It allows us to be more precise about which circuit systems have the highest level of risk heading into an extreme fire-weather event,” said Caroline Winn, CEO of San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), a Sempra subsidiary.

Drone fleets come under the regulatory auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which likely means a standardized rulebook for their use by utilities nationwide. Everette Rochon, acting manager of the FAA’s General Aviation and Commercial Division, told the online audience that the industry should share data and work with the agency to develop standards and “enable companies to use similar manuals and safety procedures to get approvals.”

Winn said that space could be the next frontier in fire prevention for utilities. The development of low-altitude satellites means high-resolution imagery can be used to monitor transmission corridors and alert operations managers to areas where vegetation might be getting too close to the lines for comfort. The information will enable them to better prioritize their mitigation schedules, or even dispatch a tree crew right away.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
These new airborne assets have the capability to generate a flood of useful imagery, but the photos and video feeds require rapid analysis if they are going to be useful to the humans running the operations center. “We expect to have three million drone images by the end of the year,” Winn said. “We needed the ability to quickly analyze those images.”

SDG&E turned to a combination of artificial intelligence and machine learning to train the surveillance system to recognize risky issues on the poles, including worn insulators and leaking transformers, that could spell trouble. The “teachers” are sharp-eyed, old-school linemen who spend their day in air-conditioned comfort watching live drone video and using the system to “box” areas of the image where equipment appears to be damaged or otherwise compromised. The machine-learning component then files the image away so that it will automatically recognize a situation that looks similar in the future and sound the alarm.

A field version of the imagery system on the drawing board would allow data to be accessed, and even collected, by linemen through systems installed on repair trucks.

The Cloud
California utilities hope for rain when clouds finally appear in the fall, but there is also a digital cloud that they can count on when late-summer fire season is in full swing.

The internet cloud enables utilities to quickly scale up their digital capacity and their capabilities to instantly analyze drone images and also ramp up communications with their crews and customers during emergency situations.

SDG&E turned to Accenture Strategy to develop a method of tapping the cloud to scale-up their ability to quickly analyze imagery and weather data and get the word out. “It offers access to low-cost computing power,” said Accenture Managing Director Caroline Narich. “That way we can better manage the system when we enter wildfire season.”

Winn said SDG&E’s testing program for new technology solutions enabled the company to “determine how we can apply them and create value for our customers.” And technology that helps prevent customers’ houses from burning down would be worth its weight in gold.