Inspections of overhead powerlines have become more critical with increased Wildfire risk

A recent vote by the Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) to revise and update rules for electric utility Wildfire Mitigation Plans is highlighting how the risk of catastrophic wildfires has become top of mind for powerline operators.

Most recently Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California’s history, was sparked by power line coming into contact with a tree.

As the past several years have shown the impact of the wildfires is significant. Therefore efforts are being made to mitigate the risks of causing wildfires from all possible sources; overhead electric facilities being one of them.

In its update, OPUC is directing utility operators to conduct a detailed risk analysis in their area of operation for wildfire threats. Powerline operators are also directed to develop and enhance existing inspection programs that would mitigate fire risks by proactively identifying structural and electrical anomalies, as well all other Safety Rules violations.

OPUC indicated that it views implementation of these rules as both critical and time-sensitive.

Likely, such directives will also be aggressively pursued by utility regulators in other jurisdictions, especially ones in remote and forested geographies where risks of wildfires are high.

It might be wise for powerline operators to consider their wildfire risk plans and inspection programs ahead of such regulatory directives to get in front of the proverbial regulatory eight ball.

Considerations for wildfire risks and overhead powerlines:

  • Not just a concern for electric utilities — although 90% of all powerlines are operated by electric utilities, there are other powerline operators for whom this is not their primary asset and who might not have given much consideration to wildfire risks or powerline inspections. Such entities could include, renewables operators (windfarms, small hydro, geothermal, etc.), mining, oil & gas, telecom, etc.
  • Insurance and litigation — the litigation process for 3 party damages related to wildfires, where electric infrastructure was involved, can be challenging for the utility operators. In past cases courts have ruled that utilities are responsible for any damages associated with their equipment, even if there was no negligence on their part. This issue can be further complicated by potential inability to obtain enough insurance capacity to cover the liability risk, putting utility companies’ balance sheet in danger.
  • Causes of electric infrastructure related wildfires include: vegetation, which often poses the greatest risk. Consideration should be given to high wind scenarios, conductor sway and tree fall in risk. Infrastructure equipment deterioration or failures is also an obvious and preventable risk. Lightning strikes on the line can also lead to fires if the grounding and bonding of equipment is not adequate or not good condition. Human activity on the ROW and presence of dry vegetation fuel are also a potential fire cause that should not be overlooked.
Damaged conductor, detected during an automated done inspection, is an example of a equipment related Wildfire risk.

Mitigation strategies employed by some utilities in wildfire risk areas

  • Infrastructure hardening such as: replacing wood structures with steel, concrete and composites; upgrading and/or insulating conductors; eliminating multiple splices and in-span connections; eliminating long spans
  • Advanced Wildfire Risk Modeling using fire science, equipment details and weather inputs
  • Weather monitoring and forecasting
  • Performing enhanced inspections including: detailed drone aerial inspection, infrared/IR hot spot checks, ROW video patrols, LiDAR or Photogrammetry surveying, in-span conductor inspections
  • Proactively managing vegetation on the ROW: brushing, vegetation management around structures, danger tree removal, management of vegetation based fuels on the ROW

Automated drone patrols of powerlines as shown above work to identify potential issues that can lead to wildfires.

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Latest updates in how automated drone inspections can change the way we see the world.

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