power electric wildfires

How Technology is Preparing Power Utilities for Wildfires

As the danger posed by wildfires continues to increase globally, utility companies have been caught in a dilemma – cut the power off when there is a threat of wildfires and earn the wrath of customers, or keep the power on and run the risk of sparking a wildfire.

Two of the largest power providers serving customers in California – Pacific Gas & Electric in the northern and central part of the state, and San Diego Gas & Electric in the southern part of the state – discussed the measures they are taking to address the problem.

Pacific Gas & Electric

In May of 2018, at the official start of wildfire season in California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced that they had opened a new Wildfire Safety Operations Center at their headquarters in San Francisco. The center is staffed by data analysts and wildfire experts who keep top officials apprised of the wildfire situation across 70,000 sq miles of the Golden State.

“The opening of the wildfire center is part of our continuing Community Wildfire Safety Program,” said Deanna Contreras, Spokesperson for PG&E. “It’s all part of our efforts to bolster wildfire prevention and our emergency response efforts, which involves several other elements, like power shutoffs, enhanced vegetation management processes, and getting feedback from communities. We’re still in the dialogue stage for the power shutoff program with customers, partners, stakeholders, and elected officials, reaching out to fire, sheriffs, and police departments, to discuss what to do during power shutoffs.”

The heart of the operations center consists of a bank of 16 screens showing various maps, as well as video feeds from community fire detection cameras, along with weather service data from federal sources, in addition to the outage reports from PG&E sources. Social media, fire and police dispatches are scoured for reports of fires across PG&E’s operational area. The data from all of these sources is then analyzed and rated for wildfire hazard level.

control room Pacific gas3

“It’s a dedicated center for monitoring wildfire threats across our operating area, which is pretty large, 24/7 in real time to coordinate prevention and response efforts,” Contreras pointed out. 

“We’re expanding our weather stations, which enhance the weather forecasting and the modeling, while helping us monitor the situation on the ground. We have access to about 100 weather stations that also capture temperature data right now. We are planning to add 200 to that network this year. There will be a number going in around Santa Rosa, where I live.”

“We’ve been working really closely with San Diego Gas and Electric on the power shutoff program, since this is the first time we’ve put protocols in place for shutting off power – when should we implement these, what other things we should be thinking about. We will only shut off power as a last resort because we realize how not having power impacts people,” she added.

“Climate change has increased the threat of wildfires across our area and this program is an action plan to help mitigate the wildfire threat and to strengthen our communities in the future.”

wild fire gas

In addition to their current efforts, Contreras pointed out that PG&E has a history of supporting local Fire Safe Councils, which help homeowners prepare their neighborhoods for wildfires. “We have worked with Fire Safe Councils for years, providing them with $13 million since 2014, $2 million this year alone, to fund more than 200 projects across our territory in Northern and Central California. Some of those projects including setting up cameras to allow officials to spot and size-up wildfires."

And PG&E is going beyond staffing a response center by directly helping First Responders.

“Our crews are working with CAL FIRE on the Pawnee Fire right now, creating 100’ fuel breaks near our power lines. Crews also treated power poles near the County Fire with wildland fire retardant yesterday [July 3].”

Although PG&E still has much to do, they are putting great effort into being better prepared when wildfire weather arrives again.

San Diego Gas & Electric

San Diego Gas & Electric has been honing its skills in handling wildfire emergencies for over a decade. As such, they are considered by many in the industry as the go-to organization for utilities trying to cope with the challenge of wildfires. With a giant S-64 helitanker, a fleet of fire trucks to call upon, and numerous weather stations dotting the backcountry, SDG&E is in the forefront of wildfire mitigation efforts.

Sikorsky S 64

“We have a world-class fire program that we have built over the past 10 years,” said Joe Vaccaro, Fire Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Manager at SDG&E. “SDG&E’s Fire Prevention Plan, as filed with the California Public Utilities Commission every October, is unparalleled in its breadth and detail. The plan covers operations, meteorology, monitoring our systems, and how we operate our systems during extreme weather conditions. It is very comprehensive.”

Weather is a crucial factor in determining the wildfire danger. As a result, Brian Dagostino, director of the newly-formed Fire Science & Climate Adaptation Department, has an important role to play. “My background over the last decade has been developing the meteorology program that is now home to the nation’s largest utility-owned weather network.

“We started with installing weather stations on all of our circuits in the backcountry in 2010, which evolved as we learned more about weather in the backcountry. We now have over 170 weather stations, the largest network in the country, which really helps us with the day-to-day operation of the electric grid and gives us really good intel on the fire danger.”

And there’s a bright spot to being in such a densely populated area. “We’ve found with the population here in San Diego County that fires tend to be reported very quickly,” he added. “We don’t have instances where things burn for an hour or so undetected. Usually smoke in the sky is reported within a couple of minutes.”

“All our weather stations give us reports every 10 minutes, so our awareness system can give us warnings before an ignition starts,” Vaccaro added. “They feed into our fire potential index, which is a rolling seven-day index on the danger of the weather at that particular day and time, broken down by district.

“We have the SAWTI, short for Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index, which was built through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, SDG&E and UCLA, that takes a look at rating Santa Ana wind events and is similar to the rating system for hurricanes,” Vaccaro explained. “We have a number of things that other utilities don’t have at this time, which allows us to prepare, to make operational changes, and to de-energize certain sections of the backcountry, not everything, just certain sections before anything happens.

electricity and wildfires2

“We’ve been able to start installing switches and sectionalizing portions of the grid where winds are typically high,” he continued, “like an area in the backcountry known as Sill Hill, which typically gets wind speeds of 70-90 mph. We’ve sectionalized those areas so that we only have to shut off power to a small number of customers during dangerous periods.”

But Vaccaro pointed out that SDG&E’s efforts go beyond simply ensuring that their powerlines don’t spark wildfires. “We’re looking at the creation of customer resource centers which are in parts of the backcountry where we think we may have a chance at facing de-energization. So to make our customers more resilient, we plan on pre-positioning power generation near a school or other resource center where people can charge their cell phones and get some food and water, so as to reduce the impacts on customers in the affected area.”

“These resource centers are in response to a series of community roundtable meetings that SDG&E hosted after de-energizing power for safety in December 2017/January 2018,” said Randy Lyle, the Fire Program Manager tasked with overseeing SDG&E’s Fire Coordinators.

But some things proposed at the roundtable meetings simply aren’t practical. “We’ve heard from people asking if we can ‘underground’ transmission lines in the backcountry, but that is simply impractical and does not totally remove the possibility of ignition,” Vaccaro explained.

Some efforts with the public do bear fruit, however. “One of the important things we’re doing is working with the public, educating them, helping them to become more resilient themselves so they’re not as impacted when power is shut off,” said Vaccaro. “We’re working with the Fire Safe Councils, and the CERT teams in particular, to run these resource centers when they are opened.”

Insofar as wildfire response is concerned, in 2009, SDG&E began to bring an S-64 heli-tanker in from Erickson, only for the peak season of September-November. But then it was brought in last December and will stay on until the end of 2019. “If the funding is approved by the regulators, we will keep them here year round,” Lyle said.

“When there is an ignition, that brings into play the S-64, and the network of cameras that we have,” Lyle explained. “The cameras are useful in triangulating and running time-lapse videos. County OES, CAL FIRE, and other agencies also use them, so we’ll see them pan, tilt, and zoom cameras during initial attack on wildfires.

“We also bring a Type 6 Strike Team in on a 90-day contract or during Red Flag days. A Type 6 engine with two firefighters goes out to the districts to accompany the troubleshooters or construction crews doing the most hazardous work, providing prevention or fire suppression, as needed.”

SDG&E’s efforts have paid off in more than just wildfire safety. “SDG&E won the Edison Award [from the Edison Institute, which represents dozens of U.S. and international electric companies] in June for all the work we’ve done for wildfire preparedness,” said Allison Torres, Communications Manager. This was the first time they had won the award since 1941.

SDG&E’s accomplishments have gotten some global attention as well. “We’ve been contacted by an international group in regards to working with other countries on their mitigation efforts for electric utilities,” Vaccaro noted. “They’re very interested in what we’re doing, and we’re reaching out to other countries to assist them in becoming more fire aware and to reduce sources of ignition at their facilities as well.”

And what about the future? “We’re constantly brainstorming some new ideas and we’re in the genesis phase on several projects,” Vaccaro replied. “We’re looking at microgrids in the backcountry where we can take small portions of the grid offline and use backup power for affected areas.” 

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but utility companies like PG&E and SDG&E are pouring millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours into the effort to better protect areas they serve from wildfires.