Electrical Utility Wildfire Mitigation in the New Norm

Electrical Utility Wildfire Mitigation

Climate change, an aging grid, and longer periods of drought paint the picture for today’s new norm in wildfire mitigation planning. No longer do we have a “wildfire season” on the west coast, USA. Today, and into the near future, wildfires are a year-round threat in California and surrounding states. In fact, half (10) of the 20 most destructive wildfires to sweep across California have occurred in the last five years.

The Southern California Thomas Fire of 2017 ignited in December, typically a dormant month for wildfire destruction. Fueled by dry conditions and intense winds, the Thomas Fire was the largest wildfire in modern California history (at the time), burning nearly 282,000 acres and 1,100 structures before it was fully contained a month later. That fire was surpassed less than a year later in August 2018 by the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex in Northern California.

As the electric utility industry continues to advance wildfire mitigation strategies in this new norm with vegetation clean-up, replacement of wooden structures for composite structures, new technologies, and a variety of other work, utilities also remain focused on minimizing the impact of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) and providing customers and communities with emergency preparedness kits, tips, tools and strategies. These efforts are designed to complement CalFire and other states’ enhanced wildfire efforts.

Technology

Regulatory requirements dictate 5-year inspection cycles for electrical distribution and 3-year cycles for electrical transmission equipment, at the minimum. To enhance these efforts, many utilities are implementing annual inspections on all overhead transmission, distribution, and generating equipment located in the highest fire risk areas. Ground and aerial inspections that can provide 360-degree views of structures and equipment are best.

Many utilities are using drones and helicopter-mounted infrared technology to detect heat signatures that could indicate damaged equipment. Manufacturers with these or other related solutions that could help utilities quickly and easily identify heat signatures or damaged equipment can expect strong product placement in 2020 through 2022 and beyond.

Artificial intelligence (“AI”) and other technology innovations that enhance utilities’ ability to review images captured during inspections and robotically identify maintenance, repair, or replacement needs are also areas where manufacturers could see strong sales.

Watch for our next blog to gain more insights in fire hardening strategies for electric utilities.

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