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Confronting record-breaking fires: How to mitigate risk with digital technology

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Bryan Friehauf's picture
EVP and GM of Enterprise Software Solutions Hitachi Energy

Bryan Friehauf is the EVP and GM of Enterprise Software Solutions at Hitachi Energy and has over 20 years of experience within the energy and software industry. Previously, Bryan was the General...

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  • Oct 21, 2021
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This year’s wildfires broke records in terms of global devastation, showcasing the negative impacts of climate change. California, a state synonymous with wildfires, recorded 2020 as its worst ever fire season and already, 2021 is shaping up to outpace it. But wildfires aren’t limited to the U.S. Fires have raged this summer with untold damage to lives and land in Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain. Even places as far north as Siberia cannot escape the threat of wildfires. ABC News reported that wildfires burning across Siberia are larger than all the fires raging this summer around the world combined.

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As fires become more prevalent and global reliance on electric power grows, so do costs to utilities. Fires threaten their core values of reliability and safety. For instance, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, which burned 400,000 acres, tripped off transmission lines and reduced electricity flow from the Pacific Northwest to California by as much as 3,500 megawatts. In addition to outages caused by the fires themselves, many utilities have been forced to implement preventative blackouts to combat potential wildfire ignitions, cutting off power to millions of customers. And if working on power lines with fires looming nearby isn’t enough of a threat to field crew safety, add in grid infrastructure (especially older assets that are no longer state-of-the-art and located in vulnerable areas) and that threat is further compounded. 
 
Leveraging technology to mitigate risk
Rapid vegetation growth rates and dry seasonal climates raise the risk of wildfires and threaten worker safety. Vegetation management is a persistent problem in certain geographies, and it is one of the largest expenses for many utilities. Traditionally, utilities have employed manual vegetation management methods, involving lots of boots on the ground – surveyors and crews – observing and recording conditions over miles and miles of utility lines. Not only is this expensive and time consuming, but it is also inaccurate and can lead to overlooked fire risks. 

Luckily, today’s utilities have a bevy of digital tools at their disposal to help them maintain reliability and safeguard their assets, workforce and customers. At the forefront are remote sensing technologies like LiDAR and GPS, and visual inspection tools such as cameras. These technologies, when combined with advanced AI-powered asset performance management (APM) solutions, help utilities gain greater visibility into the state of vegetation and the health of grid assets. It enables utilities to make better decisions and prioritize highest-risk fire areas where actions can make the most impact. 

Asset management goes hand in hand with vegetation management – and without a robust APM program, utilities lack the ability to assess asset criticality, evaluate potential failure modes, and their causes and remedies. APM can even evaluate the impacts of external factors such as weather, on a continuous basis. It helps utilities respond to fire risks in a proactive and efficient manner and stop fires from igniting.

 
The digital path forward, responding to fires
With the onset of a fire, the most powerful technologies that a utility can benefit from create a real-time view and allow it to control its infrastructure. With a smart Internet of Things (IoT) network that uses sensing, control and communications technologies, a utility can troubleshoot events in real time from anywhere. A robust system can also ingest data on weather conditions and on-site imagery to help track the fire and run scenarios with potential impacts and their likelihood. Additionally, this system can also send out alerts to signal that the fire is too close and an asset needs to be shut down. Or the system can notify crews that a geofence has been put up around the fire and its projected path to keep everyone safe and ensure crews don’t get trapped.


Unfortunately, wildfires will remain a global reality for the foreseeable future. Climate change sealed the deal. Fires will grow bigger and more threatening than in years past. As global reliance on electric power increases and outages from wildfires become more disruptive and expensive than ever before utilities are faced with daunting challenges. 
Digital technology, however, provides a clearing through the trees for utilities to mitigate risks to safety and reliability associated with fires and other unforeseen events. With the right technology, utilities can position themselves to not only maximize the efficiency of their grids and keep crews safe, but also to play a transformative role in how our global society embraces the energy transition.
 

Digital technology, however, provides a clearing through the trees for utilities to mitigate risks to safety and reliability associated with fires and other unforeseen events. With the right technology, utilities can position themselves to not only maximize the efficiency of their grids and keep crews safe, but also to play a transformative role in how our global society embraces the energy transition.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 21, 2021

A robust system can also ingest data on weather conditions and on-site imagery to help track the fire and run scenarios with potential impacts and their likelihood

What about before any potential fire-- in tracking and pushing to the forefront potential problem areas from aging equipment, perilous vegation states, etc.? 

MICHAEL HAEFLICH's picture
MICHAEL HAEFLICH on Oct 27, 2021

Very nice article, Bryan, thank you for sharing it.  Our company, iRestore, has many digital apps for utility workers in the field including our new TreeAction(TM) for app in New England and our Vegetation Inventory Manager app in CA.  Both apps are licensed by utilities and given to their in-house and/or externa tree crews.   I am wondering if you'd like to have a conversation?  Thanks, Michael@iRestoreApp.com 

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