California utilities are in quite a predicament. The deadly 2018 wildfires, most likely caused by utility equipment, have bankrupted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the state’s largest investor-owned utility. The utility filed for bankruptcy yesterday (Tuesday).
But California has “the most stringent vegetation management requirements and clearances of anywhere in the US,” according to Elizaveta Malashenko, Deputy Executive Director for Safety and Enforcement Policy at the California Public Utilities Commission. She said that the three California investor-owned utilities (IOUs) spend more than a billion dollars annually on tree trimming activities “and we are still not able to prevent utility ignited wildfires as the last two seasons have demonstrated.” she added.
Malashenko is a panelist at next week’s DistribuTECH in a mega-session called “Vegetation Management: Operations, Regulation, and Innovation” and plans to talk about some of the solutions that California utilities are considering in terms of re-thinking vegetation management because the old way of doing things, obviously isn’t cutting it.
Malashenko said that in terms of sparking wildfires, utility equipment is only to blame about 10 per cent of the time, but “when we start looking at fires in terms of most destructive in particular, then the utility infrastructure tends to be more frequently involved.”
And in California, a few unlucky scenarios have converged in recent years, leading to wildly destructive fires: droughts that last well beyond the typical summer dry season, a beetle infestation that killed or weakened many of the trees plus very high winds. Record heat + record dry + really strong winds make the landscape ripe for fire.
“When you start having winds at 60 mph, you have trees and branches flying through the air and they will continue to travel until they hit something and there is a lot of electric infrastructure everywhere,” she explained, adding that once that happens, “it takes so little ignite a fire.”
Turning the problem on its head
Vegetation management is usually done by contractors following a routine schedule that looks something like this: Once a year an arborist goes out and surveys a particular area to identify any potentially hazardous vegetation and then crews go out and perform a little bit more trimming than regulations call for to allow for growth and remove any hazardous trees.
“Then you do it all again on your rolling schedule next year,” explained Malashenko.
But it’s not working.
“That paradigm is just not getting us the results that we need,” she said.
Malashenko believes that utilities need to rethink vegetation management by asking themselves what is their end goal and what are the risks involved in not achieving it. In California that goal is most likely preventing wildfires but for other utilities it might be reliability or safety or a host of other objectives. Once they know what they are trying to accomplish, they should evaluate the cost of failing to meet that goal and start making a business case with that cost in mind.
She believes new technologies can play a large role in improving vegetation management however she cautions that the mindset of just replacing people with technology to make the business case doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s not really [as simple as] replacing foot patrols with drones,” she said. She believes that utilities need to use people for what people are good at and technology for what technology is good at.
“And what technology is good at is crunching a ton of data and increasing the amount of surveying that’s done,” she said, adding that then utilities can begin “using machine learning to take different sources of information to identify potential areas of risk and then use people and experts to go to those specific areas and come up with mitigation plans.”
Malashenko explained that utilities often make their business cases for new technology by showing how it will reduce the number of people that it needs to employ.
“That’s where this whole issue of trying to replace people with technology comes in but that’s not a really good way of doing a business case,” she said, explaining that “the good way of doing a business case is understanding the cost of failure. In California it’s wildfires.”
She summed up her thoughts nicely.
“What [utilities] should be saying is if I fly a drone and I put in some AI and do a risk analysis and also use more traditional vegetation management services I’ll be able to prevent these wildfires from happening.”