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article imageUsing technology to keep lights on can also prevent wildfires

By Karen Graham     Dec 2, 2019 in Technology
California utilities are experimenting with a new technology that proponents say could help prevent both electricity shutoffs and equipment failure-related wildfires.
B. Don Russell, an electrical engineering professor at Texas A&M University wasn't thinking about preventing a wildfire when he and his research team came up with a tool to detect power line problems. He was thinking about saving someone from being electrocuted by a downed live power line.
But with the devastation and lives lost in California's wildfires, many caused by downed power lines and faulty equipment, the new technology may help prevent both electricity shutoffs and equipment failure-related wildfires, according to the Associated Press.
“If we can find things when they start to fail, if we can find things that are in the process of degrading before a catastrophic event occurs, such as a downed line that might electrocute someone or a fire starting or even an outage for their customers, that’s kind of the Holy Grail,” Russell said.
Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) control room operator keeps watch on the electrical gr...
Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) control room operator keeps watch on the electrical grid.
Dpysh w (CC BY 3.0)
Distribution Fault Anticipation
The technology developed by Professor Russell is called Distribution Fault Anticipation, reports Tech Wire. It is used as a diagnostic tool that uses a predictive algorithm to assess electric systems and identify potential equipment failures - not unlike the modern vehicle's onboard computer that can “tell you everything there is to know of what’s wrong with the car,” said Russell.
Russell said he helped develop the technology as part of the Power System Automation Laboratory. “It will be a paradigm shift for the way utilities operate,” he said. Russell looks at today's electrical grids as being 1950's technology, sort of like a 1950 Chevrolet because it didn't have onboard sensors.
He adds that today's electrical grids are like that old vehicle. “There was nothing wrong with my 1950 Chevy in the context of its day,” Russell said. “But today, you can do better.” Today, electric utilities “just kind of have to wait until something breaks and then go fix it,” Russell said.
“(Distribution Fault Anticipation) gives you real-time situational awareness of the circuit,” Russell said. “It allows you to know when things start to degrade, rather than wait ’til they fail, which can be weeks.”
Russell also notes that the technology has been in development for over two decades, although Distribution Fault Anticipation is brand new technology.
Prior to coming on the market, the technology underwent 20 years of testing by 15 Texas utilities with the primary purpose of preventing costly power outages. “It just turns out, and this is a key point, that the things that cause outages in the system are also things that start wildfires,” he said.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison began testing the new technology earlier this year as part of a larger project, according to Herald-Mail Media.
“The technology is being evaluated along with other sensor technologies as a way to detect emerging conditions on the electric grid and improve situational awareness,” said PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty.
“The evaluation phase is scheduled to be completed by July 2020, with findings expected to inform future (Distribution Fault Anticipation) deployment opportunities in high fire-threat districts and beyond.”
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