PG&E and the future of transmission maintenance
- Dec 13, 2022 10:39 am GMT
America’s transmission system is at a crossroads. After decades of relative stagnation, our power infrastructure’s weakness has been exposed by the dovetailing trends of renewable energy and electrification. We both need more lines to deal with the extra generation electric cars and appliances require, and new lines to connect often remote renewable generation sites to the urban centers where most energy is consumed. Making matters worse, ever more extreme weather patterns are making current and future lines harder to take care of, compounding existing reliability concerns.
Nowhere is the complicated transmission picture clearer than in PG&E’s California zone. The utility, as most of you should already know, has been deemed responsible for two of the largest wildfires in the country’s history: The Dixie Fire in 2021 and the Camp Fire in 2018. After filing for bankruptcy in 2019, the utility was sentenced to a period of enhanced oversight and enforcement by the California Public Utilities Commission, basically probation for power companies. PG&E has a seemingly insurmountable and varied number of problems to solve right now. They are a bankrupt company trying to keep up with California’s famously ambitious electrification and renewable push, all while trying to prevent further wildfires in a state that just keeps getting hotter.
This past week, the industry looked on in dismay as news emerged that the California utility would be making giant cuts to contractor segments related to fire prevention: vegetation management inspectors, tree trimmers, electrical linesmen, and pole testers, according to this article in Grist. PG&E spokespeople shrugged off the alarm:
‘“Overall, we have reduced the number of contractors working for PG&E in recent weeks due to several factors, including completing or nearly completing the 2022 work plans these contractors had supported,” said PG&E spokesperson Matt Nauman. He also said that snow in the mountains has caused some work to stop for the season and that PG&E is looking to bring more of its tree work in-house by hiring 150 vegetation management inspectors as employees.”
The Grist article notes that currently all tree work at PG&E is done by contractors.
Many, including myself, assume the cuts were made for budget reasons. Whether the bet pays off or not won’t be clear until the 2023 fire season is over. Based on the utility’s recent past, however, it seems safer to assume that any risky decision on their part will come back to haunt them, and the good people of California they’re supposed to be serving.
PG&E’s woes aside, the question of how to service a growing transmission system during an era of frequent natural disaster and a tight labor force is an important one.
Luckily, technology is making things easier. Drones, one of the few technologies the industry can boast of having adopted early, are getting better every year. Recently I came across this article about a new line monitoring technology being developed in Australia. Here are a couple highlights:
“Infravision’s line monitoring technology consists of a sensor stack that can be installed by drone on transmission lines to provide real time microclimatic data which can unlock additional transmission line capacity.
This data can be used to calculate a Dynamic Line Rating (DLR) that provides a more accurate and responsive measurement of transmission capacity, allowing higher volumes of electricity to be safely dispatched when conditions are suitable.”
There’s obviously no guarantee that Infravision’s system will turn into a game changer, but the segment as a whole will continue to advance. Moving forward, robots with AI laden brains will take over a big portion of transmission care. Until then, however, companies like PG&E would be wise to keep humans doing that work on the payroll.
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