While wildfires may not be a new phenomenon in California, the last 10 years have brought an increase in both the frequency of their occurrence and the severity of their damage. As we’ve seen, the increase in both drought conditions and temperatures is already brewing a perfect storm of conditions conducive to the ignition and spread of fires.
Though a diversity of causes may be responsible for initial sparks, targeting fires caused by overhead electrical infrastructure may be one of the most practical and permanent ways to curb the ignition of wildfires in the future.
Moving thousands of miles of overhead lines will not be easy - and at a cost ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per mile, it will also not be cheap. However, this likely represents a far more achievable approach to reducing ignitions than targeting the other most common causes, which include negligent human behavior and lightning strikes.
Utilities have been undergrounding electrical infrastructure for decades, primarily in urban centers that cannot easily accommodate overhead electrical equipment. In rural and suburban settings, relatively abundant land and cheaper capital costs have historically made overhead lines an attractive alternative.
A shifting climate is changing this calculus. Beyond the growing destructiveness of wildfires, an increase in severe weather events across the globe has made the return on investment for undergrounding far more attractive. A study by LBNL found that the average duration of customer outages over the course of a year has been increasing since the early 2000s nationwide, but that a 10% increase in the share of underground line miles correlates with a 14% decrease in SAIDI (System Average Interruption Duration Index). Beyond the increase in reliability and the virtual elimination of wildfire risk attributable to power lines, undergrounding can also reduce the O&M costs associated with maintaining electrical infrastructure (by simplifying vegetation management, for example), further tipping the scale in favor of undergrounding in certain high-risk settings.
Given the myriad benefits that undergrounding provides, ranging from economic to environmental, it begs the question of why utilities have not buried more line-miles: in short, while the benefits of undergrounding have increased over time, the costs of the transition from overhead to underground remain high - and sometimes prohibitively so. Additionally, the process to scope, design, permit and install underground lines can range from months to years for a single mile, depending on the limitations of the terrain, soil conditions, easement requirements, supply chain, and other factors. While traditional excavation is time-consuming and expensive, this process becomes increasingly difficult in some of California’s most fire-prone areas located in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Not only are these regions remote and difficult to access, but the terrain consists largely of granite, one of the world’s hardest natural stones.
More accessible and populated areas also present their own set of challenges. These routes are more likely to be congested with other existing underground infrastructure, such as telecom, water, or gas lines, that must be mapped and carefully avoided during construction to prevent costly dig-ins. Regardless of location, obtaining the required permits from local and national agencies, as well as requisite permissions from private property owners, is a necessary but lengthy process that can significantly contribute to the cost and timeline of undergrounding projects.
In spite of these challenges, utilities across the U.S. have established strategic undergrounding programs for the benefit of their ratepayers, ecosystems and the electric system more broadly. In particular, PG&E is leading the way in its commitment to reducing wildfire risk by embarking on a program to underground 10,000 miles of distribution lines across the most fire-prone areas in its territory.
The scope of this multi-year, multi-billion-dollar investment also represents a monumental opportunity to drive innovation at scale. As part of its continuous effort to identify and demonstrate safer, more cost-effective, and faster methods of undergrounding, PG&E is now looking to the innovation community by partnering with ADL Ventures to launch an open innovation challenge to identify additional emerging technology solutions in multiple technical areas. Improving the line undergrounding process with next generation technologies can offer major benefits that extend far beyond PG&E and its ratepayers as utilities across the country implement their own undergrounding programs.
This open challenge is being run through ADL Ventures’ ProblemSpace platform, a powerful AI-powered platform that corporations and institutions leverage to surface the entrepreneurs and innovative academics most capable of solving targeted technical problems.
Entrepreneurs are encouraged to propose innovative solutions for any of the six areas listed below directly on the ProblemSpace website. Finalists in this ProblemSpace challenge will have the opportunity to pitch to PG&E undergrounding decision makers and to be considered for a demonstration project.
1. Novel materials / construction methods for undergrounding
2. Automation and facilitation of the permitting / easement process
3. Intelligent monitoring of underground distribution lines
4. Advanced subsurface mapping technologies
5. Cost-effective reduction and management of spoils from underground excavation
6. At-surface alternatives to undergrounding
Learn more and apply here by September 16!