This tech may help pre­vent wild­fires

PG&E test­ing de­tec­tion tool for power lines

San Francisco Chronicle - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Brian Melley

B. Don Rus­sell wasn’t think­ing about pre­vent­ing a wild­fire when he de­vel­oped a tool to de­tect power line prob­lems be­fore black­outs and big­ger dis­as­ters.

The elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at Texas A&M Univer­sity fig­ured he might save a life if his cre­ation could pre­vent some­one from be­ing elec­tro­cuted by a downed live wire.

But fire pre­ven­tion may be his prod­uct’s big­gest sell­ing point in Cal­i­for­nia and other places that have ex­pe­ri­enced dev­as­tat­ing blazes blamed on elec­tri­cal equip­ment.

“If we can find things when they start to fail, if we can find things that are in the process of de­grad­ing be­fore a cat­a­strophic event oc­curs, such as a downed line that might elec­tro­cute some­one or a fire start­ing or even an out­age for their cus­tomers, that’s kind of the holy grail,” Rus­sell said.

The tech­nol­ogy he bills as a one­of­a kind di­ag­nos­tic tool called Dis­tri­bu­tion Fault An­tic­i­pa­tion is now in use in Texas and be­ing tested in Cal­i­for­nia by Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric Co. and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son. The util­i­ties have been blamed for some of the most de­struc­tive and dead­li­est fires in Cal­i­for­nia.

Texas A&M said the tech­nol­ogy will also be tested in New Zealand and Aus­tralia, which is cur­rently reel­ing

from de­struc­tive wild­fires.

The tool de­tects vari­a­tions in elec­tri­cal cur­rents caused by de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions or equip­ment and no­ti­fies util­ity oper­a­tors so they can send a crew to fix the prob­lems, Rus­sell said.

It can an­tic­i­pate many prob­lems in their early stages — some­times years be­fore they cause an out­age or present a greater hazard dur­ing high winds, when util­i­ties are now pre­emp­tively shut­ting off power to pre­vent spark­ing wild­fires.

Be­fore the tech­nol­ogy was de­vel­oped, elec­tric com­pa­nies of­ten didn’t know they had a prob­lem un­til there was a fail­ure or a cus­tomer called to re­port sparks on power lines or a loss of elec­tric­ity.

“The as­sump­tion the util­ity has to make to­day is it’s healthy un­til we get a call that says some­body’s lights (are) out,” Rus­sell said. “By then the fire’s started or the out­age has hap­pened or the per­son’s elec­tro­cuted.”

Ped­er­nales Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive, which serves about 330,000 cus­tomers out­side San An­to­nio and Austin, Texas, be­gan im­ple­ment­ing the system af­ter suc­cess­ful tests that be­gan in 2015. The util­ity serves ar­eas so ru­ral that be­fore the tech­nol­ogy was in­stalled, elec­tric­ity pow­er­ing a pump on a well could have been off for days be­fore be­ing de­tected by a farmer.

The de­vices in­stalled at sub­sta­tions are now trou­bleshoot­ing all kinds of prob­lems, said Robert Peter­son, prin­ci­pal engi­neer for the util­ity.

“We’ve found tree branches on the line. Fail­ing ar­restors. Fail­ing ca­pac­i­tors. Fail­ing connection­s,” Peter­son said. “It’s pretty amaz­ing.”

In Cal­i­for­nia, the test­ing has just be­gun and there are no re­sults yet, ac­cord­ing to PG&E and SoCal Edi­son.

In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the soft­ware is run­ning on just 60 of Edi­son’s 1,100 cir­cuits in the util­ity’s high­risk fire zone, which ac­counts for about a quar­ter of its to­tal cir­cuits.

It’s just one of sev­eral tools the util­ity is test­ing to con­tinue to mod­ern­ize its system.

“There is no sil­ver bul­let,” said Bill Chiu, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of grid mod­ern­iza­tion and re­siliency at SoCal Edi­son. “This is re­ally more of a pre­ven­tive mea­sure. … The im­por­tant point is this will be one of the suite of tech­nol­ogy that will help us bet­ter as­sess the con­di­tion of the grid.”

Chiu said the tech­nol­ogy was not at the point where it could be used to de­ter­mine where to shut off power when dan­ger­ous winds are fore­cast dur­ing dry con­di­tions. He also said it won’t pin­point prob­lems but can help dis­patch crews closer to the source of equip­ment that needs to be fixed, sav­ing time that would be wasted pa­trolling miles of power lines.

One ques­tion is whether the tech­nol­ogy is eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble to de­ploy across tens of thou­sands of miles of power lines, Chiu said.

At an ex­pense es­ti­mated be­tween $15,000 to $20,000 per cir­cuit, it could cost the util­ity $22 mil­lion in its high­risk fire area and that doesn’t in­clude in­stal­la­tion, oper­a­tion and main­te­nance costs.

That’s a frac­tion of what a mod­er­ate wild­fire sparked by a util­ity could cost, Rus­sell said.

PG&E, which is test­ing the tech­nol­ogy on nine cir­cuits, was driven into bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion this year while fac­ing at least $20 bil­lion in losses from a se­ries of deadly and de­struc­tive wild­fires in 2017 and 2018.

SoCal Edi­son re­cently agreed to pay $360 mil­lion to lo­cal gov­ern­ments to set­tle law­suits over deadly wild­fires sparked by its equip­ment dur­ing the past two years. That fig­ure doesn’t in­clude law­suits by thou­sands who lost their homes in those fires or fam­ily mem­bers of 21 peo­ple killed when a mud­slide tore down a fire­scarred moun­tain. Two other peo­ple were never found.

Blue­bon­net Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive found the cost was fea­si­ble and has in­stalled it on about a sixth of its cir­cuits for the util­ity that has about 100,000 cus­tomers in Cen­tral Texas, said Eric Ko­cian, chief engi­neer and system op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer.

While the system has helped proac­tively di­ag­nose prob­lems and de­tect the cause of out­ages, the univer­sity team that de­vel­oped it can of­ten find prob­lems the util­ity’s con­trol room oper­a­tors don’t de­tect.

Ped­er­nales Coop is work­ing with an an­a­lyt­ics com­pany to stream­line the anal­y­sis of the myr­iad in­for­ma­tion the soft­ware eval­u­ates to find and fix prob­lems in a day, Peter­son said.

Rus­sell said he never had a hint the de­vice his re­search team cre­ated 15 years ago would have fire pre­ven­tion ap­pli­ca­tions un­til a se­ries of bad wild­fires in Texas in 2011. They were fo­cused on keep­ing power sys­tems safe and the lights on.

“It’s ob­vi­ous now in to­day’s con­text of the drought that we’ve had in Cal­i­for­nia and other places,” Rus­sell said. “Serendip­i­tously, that’s where we find our­selves to­day.”

Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle 2018

A PG&E worker runs while deal­ing with downed power lines dur­ing 2018’s deadly Camp Fire in Par­adise.

San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle 2018

The Par­adise dev­as­ta­tion in­cluded a Safe­way (bot­tom) and the Elliot Pines Apart­ments.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle 2018

The Camp Fire in Par­adise is among the Northern Cal­i­for­nia fires blamed on fallen PG&E wires.

Texas A&M En­gi­neer­ing Col­lege

B. Don Rus­sell in­vented a tech­nol­ogy for de­tect­ing flaws in power lines be­fore any prob­lems oc­cur.

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