For residents across the western United States, wildfires are a significant concern. The combination of high winds, dry foliage and a single spark can lead to devastation. In 2019 alone, California had 7,860 wildfires which burned an estimated 259,823 acres of land. This was actually an improvement over 2018, when fires ravaged nearly two million acres and thousands of homes were lost. And in 2020, residents are facing even bigger problems. Since August 15th, more that 3.6 million acres have burned across California.  This problem isn’t going away.

There are a myriad of factors responsible for wildfires and our electric grid is one of them. That’s why it is critical for utilities to take a more holistic approach to their distribution system. All it takes is one spark to inflict billions of dollars in damage. By combining sensors with advanced monitoring and control technology, utilities are able to strategically mitigate wildfire risk and improve system reliability.

A Proactive Approach for Mitigating Wildfire Risks

With stringent wildfire regulatory requirements and a decentralized grid that is increasingly more complex, having a clear picture of your distribution system is critical. Often a distribution planner or network operator’s greatest challenge is isolating a problem with minimal or incomplete data sets. Usually in these situations, the default action is to dispatch a line crew—costing the utility valuable resources with varying results.

Having a complete picture of your distribution system is essential to addressing wildfires. Utilities can create this comprehensive view by:

  1. Placing sensors strategically across your system;
  2. Injecting intelligence into traditional distribution equipment such as reclosers and capacitor banks;
  3. Providing utility engineers with an easily digestible, real-time view of the grid to isolate issues and identify anomalies.

This high visibility and proactive approach allows utilities to address problems before disaster strikes. Line crews can be dispatched to address the problem area with higher confidence, producing a safer and more resilient grid. By combining intelligent grid edge devices with an intuitive software platform, utilities can use deep insight to help mitigate wildfire risks. This real-time monitoring of system health enables utilities to prevent potential ignition threats that can cause a wildfire.

Three Emerging Technologies and Strategies

  1. Fault Detection
    Faults can be difficult to detect with traditional overcurrent relays. However, by strategically placing communication endpoints and Fault Circuit Indicators (FCIs) across the distribution system, utility operators are given the tools necessary to detect faults and take action. Vital information such as location, phase, duration and magnitude are transmitted in real-time helping to precisely pinpoint the problem.

  2. Adaptive Reclosing
    Faults can be difficult to detect with traditional overcurrent relays. However, recloser technology advancements are helping utilities efficiently tune and automate their distribution system. In a decentralized environment, adaptive reclosing allows the recloser to operate based on the sophisticated power quality conditions that it sees. The recloser determines the nature of the fault, its duration, and provides grid edge intelligence to optimally operate and automatically restore power in the shortest amount of time.

  3. Open Phase Detection
    An open phase event and the resulting voltage imbalances creates a dangerous condition for utilities and their customers. When a loss-of-phase condition occurs, utilities need to address the problem quickly. By integrating fault circuit indicators and communication endpoints, utilities get actionable intelligence at the grid edge. Operators are alerted to open-phase problems in real-time and can look at the underlying analytics to make an informed decision on the next steps. Reliability engineers can perform deep analysis and study patterns to not only determine the issue, but prevent it from occurring again.

There isn’t any easy fix to the wildfire problems plaguing the western United States.  However, with the aid of advanced sensing technology, utilities are able to address a minor spark before it can transform into an uncontrolled fire.