In the age of increased automation, we can no longer claim ignorance.
It’s been on my mind since late 2018, when investigators attributed the deadly Northern California Camp Fire to California electric utility, PG&E . Then again just earlier this month, with new findings emerging regarding the possible negligence of Southern California Edison in the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara that had killed two, and led to the deaths of 27 others after a deadly mudslide. In the 2017 fire, over 280,000 acres of land were scorched — the damage impacted many human lives, wildlife, natural habitat, and homes.
As I read the articles, lawmakers and regulators were seeking to find a culprit to blame; I read repeatedly that electric utility companies were negligent in maintaining its infrastructure and inspection routines.
A quick history diversion here: The bulk of North American utility infrastructures were built in the 1960s and 1970s and this is when most of the maintenance, testing and inspection standards were developed. Inevitably, our society’s reliance on electricity has surged significantly, increased population density has been pushing the housing development further into the forests and up hill sides. Paired with volatile and disastrous effects from climate change, the flaws of our aging electric infrastructure are coming to light.
As we look at these changes and challenges around us, the question is: have the standards and technologies of utilities kept up?
Having worked as at various electric utility companies in asset management testing and inspections, I can say that adapting and changing is not an easy task for utilities. On one hand the electric grid is a complex system, which unlike most of other industries, is not located in a secure facility. The grid and it’s assets are dispersed over over a large territory, difficult to access, exposed to varied and demanding weather, have significant safety and environmental challenges.
On the other hand, now more than ever, utilities are faced with a tough balancing act of keeping the electric rates low, while maintaining the aging grid and keeping up with new demands and technology. Having the lights out for even an hour is a major inconvenience as it has a significant impact on businesses, from large enterprises to home-based freelancers; which quickly add up to lost dollars and productivity.
In 2017, just days before the deadly Thomas fire ignited, PG&E had warned customer that they might cut power, when risks of fire surged. In the end, they did not do so. Turning off the power was one of the wildfire-prevention plans that were on the table, and it’s understandable that is was a difficult decision. In addition, new tree-trimming standards were enacted in late 2017. To me, these standards sound reactionary and the risks are still too high in fire-prone areas. The utility industry needs to take a preventative and proactive stance — and embrace inspection automation technologies that can provide timely information on equipment deficiencies and fire hazards.
It seems like a no win situation for utilities, with the public often taking a negative perception of the industry, considering utilities as bureaucratic, slow moving giants.
However, change will happen and utilities must learn to become more nimble and adopt to the the new environment by changing their procedures and embracing new technology, or face irrelevancy and become an artifact of the past.
In the case of infrastructure inspection there are many opportunities to change the way this industry operates with the technology available today. Inspections don’t have to be a labor intensive task, expose workers to safety risks, or require major capital investment. New developments in our industry allow us to detect potential hazards and impending failures in a cost-efficient and safe manner. I believe that utilities will soon find it hard to claim ignorance with the technologies available to address these challenges.
Alex Babakov is the Founder of Aeriosense Technologies, focused on developing a safer, more efficient method of utility inspection through the use of automated drone inspection.