Tech Insights

Preventing Grid Failures and Managing the Complexities of Wildfire Risk

September 29, 2023 by John Nieman

Managing wildfire risk is a difficult process that depends on many variables, and utility companies are searching for better tools to repair infrastructure and monitor grid performance.   

After a wildfire has swept through a community, there is a practical need to understand the cause to help improve preventative measures. But in many cases, a complex convergence of factors leads to fires, and singling out one specific catalyst is arduous or impossible. Soaring temperatures, high winds, ongoing draughts, aging equipment, and other variables all combine to create high-risk circumstances that make identifying the source of a fire difficult. 


Defective or fallen power lines can cause wildfires.

Defective or fallen power lines can cause wildfires. Image used courtesy of City of Los Angeles


These risks can be mitigated, and engineers are pioneering AI deep learning models that can help monitor power line performance and detect faults and failures in the electrical grid that can contribute to wildfire risk. At the same time, wildfires can threaten to damage or destroy power infrastructure. In addition to traditional forms of maintenance like foliage management and circuit breaker replacements, these high-tech tools can help engineers predict infrastructure needs and execute repairs. 


Legal Culpability for Wildfire Damages

Utility companies can be held liable for wildfires if there is sufficient evidence, and the county of Maui recently brought civil suits against Hawaiian Electric and others in the wake of the recent fire in the town of Lahaina on Maui. The legal argument rests on the claim that utility companies can be held liable if they do not discontinue power when forecasters warn of imminent fire danger with adequate time to do so. 

The statistical reality is that when you consider wildfires alone, utility companies do indeed bear significant culpability when compared to other natural causes or arson. And some companies are taking aggressive action to accept this responsibility. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is spending over $20 billion to bury over 10,000 miles of power line distribution wire because taking wires underground drastically reduces wildfire risk.   


In California alone, electrical power caused hundreds of wildfires during 2020 and 2021.

In California alone, electrical power caused hundreds of wildfires during 2020 and 2021. Image used courtesy of Cal Fire


For many large utility companies, there are serious fiscal consequences that come with this culpability.  In 2023, one utility company in California paid $150 million in a lawsuit settlement with the California Public Utilities Commission.

Given the high cost of legal liability, companies could opt to just cut power when risks arise, but the choice to disrupt power is not a simple one, and doing so can cause a ripple of dangerous consequences. People in rural areas often lack adequate access to backup generators. Restricting access to air conditioning can be fatal in certain climates, and local businesses can be substantially harmed by a disruption to the power grid supply. So, the notion that a utility company can simply “throw the switch” when risks run high is a misinformed oversimplification of an intricate web of dangers and problems.  


Mitigating Wildfire Risk

If there is no simple binary choice for utility companies to make between overly cautious power cutting and constant access to power regardless of risk, then what choices are there to help reduce harm? 

The answer might surprise some as it is not necessarily about high-tech interventions. Aggressive maintenance can go a long way, so trimming trees and removing excess foliage that serves as fuel for a fire is a key step for managing risk. 

In addition, making sure that core equipment infrastructure is well maintained is also essential. Wires, transformers, circuit breakers, and all other equipment need to be monitored and replaced as they age, without waiting for a malfunction to occur before replacements are installed. Such reactionary maintenance only heightens the risk that one malfunction will happen in a vulnerable area, leading to a destructive blaze. 


Using Technology to Monitor Grid Problems

Technology can indeed help with equipment monitoring and replacement. Various companies are pioneering the use of AI with sensor technology to improve the detection of faulty wires as well as help monitor the status of the U.S. electrical grid. Other power line monitoring devices are being designed to identify dangerous jumps in current. This can help facilitate the strategic choice to cut power when significant increases in current are threatening power line safety. 


Smartgrid technology, including the use of artificial intelligence, can help monitor power grids and detect problems.

Smartgrid technology, including the use of artificial intelligence, can help monitor power grids and detect problems. Image used courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory


Perhaps even more important, long-term adjustments to the way utility companies build electrical infrastructure will contribute the most to improving safety and reducing wildfire risk. By localizing power production through microgrids and renewable energy sources like solar panels, power generation can collectively pivot away from large, central providers to community-based providers that circumvent the need for power to travel great distances.     

Completely preventing wildfires is impossible, but with these innovations, utility companies can make smarter choices using better tools to know where to repair and when to shut down power completely to avoid tragedies like the one in Hawaii this past summer.