According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), 49,149 wildfires have destroyed 8,719,721 acres of land in the U.S. last year alone, 2.2 million acres above the ten-year average and almost double the area burned during the 2019 wildfire season. Many lives, and properties, have been lost. National Forests and Parks devastated. Learning from disasters of the past, the power utilities that operate transmission and distribution lines in areas prone to fire have started to make PSPS’ the go-to preventive solution.
With severe weather forecasted, power is shut off in those areas to prevent failing infrastructure from igniting the dry, fuel-rich ground and leaving thousands of homes and businesses without power and crippled telecommunications. A defrosted freezer and a few hours without TV are preferable to your community being devastated by a wildfire. However, the dimensions of some PSPS arguably raise the question; might there be a better way?
On October 15th, a California power utility shut off power to 53,000 of their customers, the PSPS spanning over 24 counties in Northern California. In 2019, one particular PSPS impacted a staggering 738,000 customers, some of them left in the dark for days. Despite these preventive measures, even absent extreme weather, a power line fails every once in a while, igniting a fire and leading to a catastrophic event.
On June 24th of last year, a fire broke out north of California Highway 246, burning almost 700 acres of wildland before it was brought under control by CalFire. Investigators pinpointed the cause of the fire as a failed power line between two utility poles. Yet again.
Power line destroyed by the East Troublesome wildfire in Colorado. Source: Western Area Power Administration (WAPA).
California, in general, as well as Californian power utilities, have a double problem. Not only are they located in a hot and arid climate that is prone to wildfires, but there is also the infrastructure to consider. The medium voltage distribution network is mostly above ground, and the useful parts are not in the most remarkable shape. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rural Utilities Service, most of California’s power distribution infrastructure falls into the “intermediate” and “high” categories in utility pole decay severity.
Utility pole decay severity zones (US Dep. Agriculture & Rural Utilities Service)
Power utilities today have no way of knowing the actual individual state of their poles in real- or near-real-time, the very structures keeping energized power lines away from the ground, and to monitor vegetation growing into the lines. Poles are inspected in regular schedule-based intervals, requiring vast amounts of resources in terms of workforce, time, and of course, money. A small, local distribution network operator easily oversees some 5,000 miles of power lines. At 18 poles per mile, that translates into a staggering 100,000 poles. Larger transmission network operators typically operate north of 100,000 miles of power lines, serving millions of customers. The associated schedule-based maintenance costs millions. Even complying with NESC standards for maintenance and prevention, it is virtually impossible to detect every single last pole that might fail before it is too late. The result? Absent real knowledge, data, and awareness on the state of health of the infrastructure, power utilities see themselves forced to shut off power when severe weather is forecast.
In 2009, Australia suffered one of its worst bush fire summers. The Black Saturday fire destroyed more than 2,000 homes, burned over 1.1 million acres of land, injured 414 people, and killed 173 Australians. Ultimately, some of the Victorian utilities were found culpable of negligence, directly resulting in 11 of the 15 fires that caused this devastation. As part of the remediation process, one of our founders and CTO, Iain Puddy, believed that identifying at-risk utility poles that will fail and cause bushfires could prevent catastrophic events. This belief materialized as a proof of concept pole monitoring solution which utilized IoT and mesh networking technologies. The device developed was able to identify the poles that needed immediate replacement and monitored for changes in the structural condition that would allow sufficient time to act to avoid another bush fire incident.
Hayden Data Systems sensor device installed on power pole at test facility on Austin, Colorado
Flash-forward to the year 2020, and Hayden Data Systems is in the process of ramping up its production capabilities of our Hayden Smart Sensors. When installed on power poles in remote areas, it provides structural health monitoring of poles, fire, smoke, gas detection, remote visual vegetation monitoring, and meteorological monitoring in near-real-time (NRT). The units operate in a self-healing meshed network, communicating with each other on the 900 MHz frequency. The devices transmit their data through the cellular network or, where a cellular network is not available, through satellite links to our customers’ data centers where it can be accesses through Hayden’s data visualization platform.
The utilities installing Hayden Data Systems’ devices on their poles have 24/7 access to each pole’s data. That access lets utility companies monitor the poles’ state of health, know precisely when and where to execute maintenance work, reinforce or replace poles, and provides near-real-time information about wind, rain, ground moisture, and visuals down the lines from the devices’ cameras for applications such as vegetation management.
The application of technology might not always make PSPS’ a thing of the past completely, but apart from the great potential of prevention and risk mitigation through awareness, it helps making informed decisions based on the real state of health of infrastructure when severe weather is forecast. Moreover, after the literal storm has passed, the system greatly increases efficiency in restoration and inspection planning. Currently, utilities rely on fleets of helicopters and crews on the ground to visually inspect every section of the grid that might potentially have been damaged. With monitoring, the utility would have sensors and eyes on the ground and know where exactly restoration crews would have to be deployed and work be done, and where not.
They effectively turn “dumb” poles into smart poles. If a nearby fire is detected, whether caused by a failing line or by natural causes, the utility becomes a true solution provider, capable of alerting emergency response agencies of inherent danger rather than being the cause of it. Ever wondered how a win-win-win-win situation looks like? This is it.