Buried powerlines & waveform analytics: Wildfire prevention discussed at DC hearing

Utility officials in west Tennessee say power may not be fully restored for thousands of customers until Tuesday after severe thunderstorms moved through the area./ Source: MGN
Utility officials in west Tennessee say power may not be fully restored for thousands of customers until Tuesday after severe thunderstorms moved through the area./ Source: MGN(WVLT)
Published: Dec. 19, 2019 at 10:11 AM AKST
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The U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources met Thursday morning with the purpose of addressing prevention tactics when it comes to fires from electric grids.

To put in plain terms, what can electric companies do to prevent fires, and what would some solutions look like in the future?

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Chairwoman of the committee with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin being the ranking member, listened to testimony from five witnesses. Notable witnesses include Bill Johnson, CEO and President of PG&E and Dr. B. Don Russell, Distinguished Professor and Director, Power System Automation Laboratory.

In Sen. Murkowski's opening statement, she highlighted California and the deadly Camp Fire. That 2018 wildfire killed 85 people and the cause was attributed to degraded power lines operated by PG&E, which eventually settled its liability for a combined $24.5 billion for victims and insurers. This sparked the need for discussion on the issue of what can be done to prevent similar wildfires across the nation, especially in the western United States.

Murkowski highlighted “California regulators and several of the state’s largest utilities to increase their use of Public Safety Power Shutoffs – or “PSPS plans” – as a precaution against possible wildfire ignitions during high wind events.”

She went on to say “PSPS plans call for utilities to de-energize power lines in extreme weather conditions and blackout large portions of their service territory.” This caused several lengthy blackouts for people in California earlier this fall.

But the problem, or concern, of power line fires, isn’t just a California issue, even though national attention was dedicated to the fires in the state. Murkowski mentioned that it is believed that several fires in the Mat-Su Valley are connected to power line ignitions.

“An investigation is still pending, but a tree falling onto a distribution line is the suspected cause of the McKinley Fire this summer, which resulted in the loss of 56 homes.”

What can be done to prevent power line ignition fires and what would some solutions look like?

Main takeaways from the two-hour hearing:

  • Work needs to be done on creating technology that detects issues, and have the technologies being implemented as soon as possible.
  • Development of diagnostic technologies that will help understand what went wrong or is going wrong on a power line or grid.
  • Proactive measures for managing vegetation need to be/or continued to decrease risk

In Alaska alone, there have been over 175 wildfires in 2019 with suppression costs over $184,602,065.58, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. It remains unclear what the damage stemming from electric-grid-related fires has been.

One option would be burying powerlines, but that comes with costs.

“We all know that undergrounding would certainly eliminate some of the risks that you see, you’re not going to see downed lines cause of the fire, but the cost is considerable,” Sen. Murkowski said when questioning Johnson.

Johnson said it's something that electricity companies have already started planning.

“Historically undergrounding was usually for aesthetic purposes,” Bill Johnson, CEO, and President of PG&E said, "In recent years as we built substations, subdivisions and other things more underground. And we do plan to underground more in California distribution line.” But Johnson went on to say that there comes a time when a certain line size and voltage makes it impossible to have the line underground, thus calling for other solutions.

There was also discussion into more technological solutions for problems.

Dr. B. Don Russell, a professor at Texas A&M and an expert in electric power engineering, highlighted how tech devices are being used to monitor, diagnosis and detect issues on lines and grids.

“We can do more because we need to use advanced diagnostics. Everything that everyone has said they want to do is good, “ Russell said, “I will tell you because I’ve looked at all the fires in California that are significant as well as in Texas, Oklahoma and other places many of the things we are doing are not addressing…we need more diagnostics.”

Russell went on to say “Waveform analytics is able today to diagnose your car, it’s able to diagnose the health and condition of your body, and we can most certainly diagnose in real-time a lot of the things that are failing on power systems.”

The panel of witnesses each highlighted that technology is being implemented in some areas, but a wide-spread distribution of use is not currently happening.

In her closing remarks, Murkowski highlighted the importance of technology and its role along with other possible solution were highlighted during the hearing.

To watch the full hearing,

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