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Utility worker in front of a wildfire

CIGRE Releases Survey Results on Pole Fire Causation and Mitigation

68% of survey respondents believe the primary cause of a pole fire is related to overhead equipment failure, flashover, arcing, or current leakage.

Members of the CIGRE Wildfire Mitigation Working Group and Exacter, Inc. of Columbus, Ohio recently released results from a survey of 63 utilities in North America entitled, “Pole Fire 2019." The goal of the survey was to explore what utility stakeholders believed about the origins, causations, impact, and cost of pole fires, as well as the strategies and methods being used to mitigate them.

Respondents included a cross section of IOUs (27%), rural cooperatives (48%), municipals (19%), and Canadian utilities (6%), ranging in size from 700 miles and under systems to overhead grids of over 90,000 miles. The questions asked pertained to pole fire activity over the past 12 months.

“Perhaps the most surprising result of the survey for many readers will be what 68% of utilities cite as the primary cause of pole fires. It’s not climate change or even the weather. It’s partial discharge, leakage current, or flashover incidents from deteriorating overhead equipment,” stated John Lauletta, Exacter CEO and member of the CIGRE Wildfire Mitigation Working Group.

“What was most interesting to us was that only 19% of the responding utilities had a specific program for preventing pole fires,” said Geoffrey Bibo, Exacter’s president. “That doesn’t mean that many of the root causes aren’t being addressed as part of other programs. However, it did reveal that pole fires and collateral damage from them are not singled out as an area of direct focus by more than 80% of the utilities surveyed.”

63% of respondents estimated the cost to repair a pole fire incident to fall in the range of US$10,000 to US$20,000. This would include the cost to replace the pole, equipment, and installation labor. As evidenced from the wildfires that have been ravaging the West, the largest cost is not for repair but for collateral damage. 25% of the utilities responding reported that at least one pole-fire incident led to collateral damage of some kind.

“Collateral damage doesn’t have to be an out-of-control wildfire it can be a small fire. It can impact just two to three homes or a number of vehicles, but even these types of collateral incidents can take the cost from US$15,000 to US$50,000, to US$500,000, or more very quickly,” added Lauletta.

Key findings from the survey:

  • Only 19% of utilities surveyed have a specific pole fire mitigation program or strategy in place.
  • While the cost to repair damage from a pole fire was cited to be as high as US$40,000 per incident, the majority of utilities (63%) estimate the typical cost is between US$10,000 to $20,000.
  • 25% of the utilities (one in four) reported at least one incident in which a pole fire led to significant collateral damage.
  • 68% of respondents, almost 7 in 10, believe the primary cause of a pole fire is related to overhead equipment failure, flashover, arcing, or current leakage.
  • There was no clear consensus on which season of the year was most conducive for pole fires, although fall and winter were almost unanimously seen as seasons where fewer occur.
  • Regarding pole fire frequency, Exacter has interviewed companies who have experienced 500, 1000, and even 3000 pole fires in a 12-month period. In this survey, most (63%) respondents cited one to five incidents per year. 18% of respondents estimated 10 to 20 pole fires per year.
  • There were 546 pole fires reported in the survey. 61 utilities, or 11% of these had collateral damage. This means the total cost to repair nine pole fires (on average) would be US$135,000, but the cost of the tenth could have liability issues extending over US$1 million.

Lauletta and the CIGRE Wildfire Mitigation Working Group will be circulating survey data among its members as part of their effort to make recommendations to the industry on how utilities can better address the issue of wildfire prevention.

“There are lots of interesting insights in the survey on what utilities are doing to mitigate the various root causes,” concluded Lauletta. “It’s an issue Exacter has been addressing for a number of years because we address the primary cause. I would encourage anyone in the utility industry to review this important survey and research.”

The survey results are available here.

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