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Wildfires: Squelching This Recurring Nightmare

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W. Alan Snook, II's picture
President GRID20/20, Inc.

Given 25 years of entrepreneurial business experience at many levels, my daily focus remains on building relationships, supporting customers and team members, and holding tightly to core business...

  • Member since 2021
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  • Jun 17, 2021
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“It will never happen to us.”   Well, that belief has been resoundingly disproven.

 

EVERY year, grid asset induced and non-grid induced wildfires are ravaging communities throughout the US, and internationally. Worst case scenarios are occurring...in perennial fashion.

 

Whether you do, or do not subscribe to the concept of Climate Change, there is no denying that hotter, dryer conditions are fueling increased wildfire events, and oftentimes catastrophic damages.

 

As the 2019 bankruptcy filing of a large US investor-owned utility has proven, wildfire-driven corporate liability is now a genuine concern. Worst case scenarios are becoming common.

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Today’s Reality:

Public outcry, and political leadership has presented a terribly challenging scenario for our valued utility operators. In addition to ensuring that all households receive reliable electricity service, operators are now expected to accommodate a series of grid-edge advancements. The first fundamental problem facing operators is that our distribution grid architecture was not built, nor even conceived to successfully support a growing series of unplanned grid-edge demand.

 

Most utility transformer fleets were deployed decades ago.  While periodic replacements do occur, the substantial majority of transformers were sized and installed long before today’s grid-edge demands were ever imagined.  For example, operators were not able to foresee massive rooftop solar deployments driving reverse energy into our grids.  Nor were they able to envision widespread Electric Vehicle charging stations being installed at the residential level. 

 

These two grid-edge developments alone are presenting stressful demand upon our aging transformer infrastructure.  Utility operators are already seeing an uptick in transformer failures, costly power outages, transformer fires, wildfire risk, public safety risk, corporation liability risk, environmental damage, insurance costs, and massive Greenhouse Gas emissions events.  Couple those realities with Climate Change impacts (e.g., hotter, dryer conditions), and we have the recipe for terrible outcomes -- which now occur annually.   For anyone who doubts this reality, research the mind-boggling wildfire devastation facts associated with the 2017 Napa fire events, the 2018 Paradise California disaster, the 2020 Oregon wildfires, the 2020 California wildfires, the 2020 Australia wildfires, etc.  The empirical data is undeniable, and it is sobering.  

 

Yet, few have taken the time to sufficiently connect the dots, and recognize the quietly aggregating problems that are now manifesting within and around our grids, as we eagerly pursue various Climate Change goals.  

 

While all of this ‘reality’ is unfolding, few people are understanding the correlation among the ongoing wildfire disasters, the series of demands being placed upon utility operators, and the aging infrastructure upon which we aspire to achieve a series of Climate Change improvements.

 

The fact is, while we are trying to assert Climate Change improvements, we are actually creating a series of offsetting negative outcomes.  Annual damage costs, fatalities, injuries, emitted Greenhouse gases, liabilities exposure, increasing insurance costs, localized economic damage, stressed state budgets, etc. are collectively compounding as a result of wildfires.  While not all wildfires are grid asset failure induced, many have been.  And this trend will continue until we truly recognize and meaningfully address this painful, undeniable reality.  

 

Calling attention to this situation is not a ‘Scare Tactic’.  Rather, it is a necessary reality-check.  

 

If we will require operators to deliver reliable electric service while adopting a series of unplanned grid-edge impacts, all occurring upon an aging infrastructure, then we had better get serious about providing them the necessary tools.  Successful grid-edge adoption of pervasive rooftop solar integration and residential EV Charging Stations -- in the name of Climate Change goals -- will not magically occur. Technology is required to solve this problem.

 

Innovative Technology To The Rescue:

It is financially impractical, and logistically impossible to replace our transformer fleets with new assets. But, our transformers are the unavoidable ‘on ramp’ to our developing grid-edge initiatives.  In essence, wherever rooftop solar and/or residential EV charging stations are installed, an upstream transformer is then tasked with handling the unplanned load.

 

While this situation may sound trivial, it is not.  Using best-estimated standards and averages, all transformers are sized and deployed for an anticipated load, or demand.  But when new unanticipated grid-edge developments such as rooftop solar and residential EV charging stations are introduced, existing transformer assets are prone to quickly becoming undersized.  This results in overload, accelerated end-of-life for the assets, power outages, a potential transformer fire, wildfire risk, and so forth.  In other words, this unfolding scenario IS the recipe for imminent disaster.  This reality is already unfolding throughout North America, and beyond.

 

However, by embracing the use of cost-effective intra-grid sensors, utility operators can now achieve necessary ongoing visibility into their transformer fleets; for the first time ever.  Historically, operators are unaware of developing load/overload conditions on their transformer assets until a trouble call, power outage, or worse is reported.  This reactive condition prohibits operators from foreseeing the manifesting intra-grid concerns, or pre-empting imminent asset failures. This is how grid-induced fires/wildfires result, leaving a wake of pain and cost.  

 

But, via the introduction of fast-to-install intra-grid sensors, operators can now gain immediate, and ongoing visibility throughout their transformer fleets, and therefore throughout their grids.

 

Addressing Reality...Squelching Our Recurring Wildfires Nightmare:

By recognizing that existing transformer fleets present us with a unique opportunity, we can take action to avoid wildfire occurrences, and reduce wildfire-related impacts.  Because overhead transformers are located throughout our populated areas, they present a viable foundation for a unique sensor network.  

 

By innovatively leveraging our existing overhead transformer fleets, cost-effectively retrofitted with specially designed sensors, we can create a game-changing fire mitigation solution.

 

Specially designed sensor networks will present an “Always-On”, outdoor, overhead sensor canopy solution; uniquely designed for the purposes of Preventing, Early Detecting, and Auto Alerting. Giving operators and authorities unique awareness to developing fire/wildfire conditions.  Additionally, this fire mitigation solution will provide Situational Awareness during already-unfolding events.  

 

These specially designed sensors will provide continuous intra-grid monitoring capability.  The resulting sensor data will reveal a series of dynamic intra-grid conditions. Then auto alerts advise operators when problematic grid situations are detected.  This fulfills a first-ever, comprehensive, proactive intra-grid visibility feature for our operators.  Given the aforementioned rooftop solar and/or residential EV Charging Station implications, specially designed sensor networks will enable operators to maintain necessary oversight of their transformer fleets and associated intra-grid volatilities; which otherwise typically go unchecked until a trouble call, power outage, or worse is reported.

 

In turn, Prevention of transformer and/or grid-related asset failures can now be achieved. 

 

This same fire mitigation intra-grid sensor solution also provides ongoing ground/fire surface temperature data, ambient temperature, outdoor smoke/gas detection, humidity sensing, and other options.  This innovative suite of sensing capabilities enables Early Detection and Auto Alerting. Whether a fire/wildfire is catalyzed by a grid asset failure, or a separate source (e.g., lightning, arson, etc.), the specially designed sensor networks will deliver ongoing fire mitigation value. 

 

Additionally, as unpreventable fires/wildfires occur, these specially designed sensor networks will afford critical Situational Awareness capability for operators and/or First Responders.  

 

Summary:

Emerging sensor technology will create an “Always-On” outdoor, overhead monitoring and public safety protection solution while simultaneously presenting operators (and First Responders) with vital, unique, timely, accurate, reliable data.   This actionable data will collectively address our required Prevention, Early Detection, Auto Alerts, and Situational Awareness needs.  

 

As we strive to accomplish multiple Climate Change initiatives, we must realize that unintended negative impacts are now arising.  Thereby setting the stage for increased grid asset failures, fires and wildfires.  Overlooking or dismissing these realities is both unwise, and dangerous.  The emerging outdoor sensor network technology will provide a viable solution for squelching our perennial wildfire nightmares, whether they be grid or non-grid induced.  

 

Prevention is always the top priority; specially designed sensors will check this box.  But when unavoidable fires/wildfires occur, Early Detection, Automated Alerts and Situational Awareness are vital.  Emerging sensor networks will also check these boxes. Simply, this one sensor network technology will deliver a series of imperative value propositions leading to improved public safety protections, environmental damage reductions, utility corporation liability risk reduction, extensive cost reductions for utility operators and state/local governments and all stakeholders, plus facilitates improved and safe integration of today’s Climate Change-inspired grid-edge advancements.

 

In order to successfully achieve our ongoing Climate Change initiatives, while preserving or improving necessary grid Reliability and increasing public safety protections, we must employ cost-effective technology to steward the process.  Emerging outdoor, overhead sensor network technology presents this solution. 

 

If we want to TRULY experience the value of a genuine Smart Grid, then envision our distribution grids being strategically leveraged to deliver innovative fire mitigation solutions; simultaneously serving  public safety, Climate Change and environmental interests, protecting local economies from ruin, reducing occurrences and size/scope of wildfires, while also reducing utility corporation liability risk, and protecting shareholder value.   One Emerging Technology....Multiple Long-Lasting Solutions.  

 

 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jun 17, 2021

The fact is, while we are trying to assert Climate Change improvements, we are actually creating a series of offsetting negative outcomes.  Annual damage costs, fatalities, injuries, emitted Greenhouse gases, liabilities exposure, increasing insurance costs, localized economic damage, stressed state budgets, etc. are collectively compounding as a result of wildfires. 

This is a great point-- the utility industry is often accused of siloing projects and work, but this is a real way that maybe those siloes need to be broken down and comprehensive problems tackled head-on. 

Are you seeing any examples of utilities addressing this whole package in the right way? Any shining examples on the hill?

W. Alan Snook, II's picture
W. Alan Snook, II on Jun 18, 2021

Matt - Thank you for your comments, and your questions.   We are seeing one IOU that is demonstrating an emerging recognition of the need to bridge the 'silo-gaps'.  Surely there are others for which we may not yet have awareness.  The bankruptcy filing of a major IOU in 2020 seems to have illuminated the depth/breadth of corporation liability risk that now exists.  Genuine action must be taken given the simultaneously pressing challenges associated with Climate Change impacts, Decarbonization goals/mandates, Grid-Edge developments, Unplanned Load burdens, Aging Infrastructure, and Corporation Liability Risk.   We are in uncharted waters....comprehensive solutions that recognize and account for unintended negative outcomes must be weaved into the evolving smart grid transformational process.   

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 18, 2021

Great subjects Alan,  the GRID EDGE demands are really changing but the FACT is Climate Change is for real. The only difference in opinion is is it man made or natural. Your quote seemed to miss that . QUOTE= 

Whether you do, or do not subscribe to the concept of Climate Change, there is no denying that hotter, dryer conditions are fueling increased wildfire events, and oftentimes catastrophic damages.

    I also think that monitoring wildfires is not a good solution. The proper thinning of the forests before we have fires would be much better.  Prevention is always better. 

    The electric vehicle charging problem can also be reduced by the proper Off Peak rate policies. 80% of electrics charge at night off peak now.   With special off peak rates that can become 99%   using battery storage at Fast Chsrging high power stations can reduce those daytime loads.  A V2G tariff can let those vehicle help the GRID during the day.  

    What do you see as the biggest opportunity? 

W. Alan Snook, II's picture
W. Alan Snook, II on Jun 18, 2021

Jim - Thanks for your kind comments...and for sharing your views.   The quote that you mentioned was intended to include everyone --- regardless of their beliefs in the causes or contributors of Climate Change.    The point is that no one can deny the facts that hotter/dryer conditions now grip our world --- respectfully, how/why Climate Change is occurring is not the point of this article. 

However, providing a solution to this factual problem is the point of the article.   As for the EVs charging on/off peak, the net impact outcome will change very little or not at all; we have an aged transformer fleet serving the distribution grid....most transformer assets were deployed decades ago.  It's unlikely that today's levels of residential EV charging station demand, Reverse Energy impacts caused via DER, etc. were factored into the transformer sizing decisions decades ago.  As you likely know, transformers require ample cool-down periods.  On/off peak charging will increase the load profile on transformers beyond intended levels projected during deployment (many years ago), and it will therefore reduce the cool-down periods.  This is the recipe for accelerated End-Of-Life of transformer assets.  That sets the stage for increased asset failures/outages/fires/wildfires/etc. Without sufficient, reliable  intra-grid data intelligence becoming available to operators, then the same historic reactive behaviors of operators will continue.  Given all of the advancements that we are making, and lofty pressures/expectations we are presenting to our valued operators, surely we can conclude that proactive intra-grid data awareness/intelligence will be imperative for our operators.   

Also, there is no disagreement that vegetation management is a key element in the fire mitigation initiative.   However, vegetation management alone is a one-legged stool.   Using cost-effective, fast-to-install sensor technologies will change the entire paradigm regarding fire mitigation....aka, marked improvements in Prevention, Early Detection, Auto Alerts, and Situational Awareness ---- collectively reducing the occurrence of asset failures/fires/wildfires AND reducing the size/scope/cost/impacts of unpreventable instances (i.e., grid and/or non-grid induced).  Vegetation management alone will not prevent overloaded, aging distribution grid assets from failing...but, reliable, proactive intra-grid data CAN help to prevent or reduce such matters.  The combination of intra-grid sensor data intelligence and vegetation management is a bona fide foundation upon which a successful fire mitigation strategy can be built.

A 'big' opportunity that we see is actually MAKING the grid SMART....via the use of intra-grid sensors that can drive reliable data/auto alerts.   Imagine a distribution grid that is SMART ENOUGH to provide an "always-on" outdoor overhead monitoring solution that helps to avoid and/or reduce the impacts of asset failures/fires/wildfires ---  even including non-grid induced wildfires.  A SMART Grid will do more than facilitate the bi-directional flow of electricity....it will also provide substantial protections regarding public safety, environmental safety, line crew safety, first responder safety, and will reduce corporation liability risk while simultaneously facilitating GHG emissions reduction strategies. That is a snippet of the genuine SMART Grid that we foresee.

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