Photo by Portland General Electric.
Utility workers install a new pole in a forested area of the PGE service territory.

Portland General Electric Deploys AI, Advanced Tech to Reduce Wildfire Risk

April 11, 2023
The Pacific Northwest utility is advancing its wildfire mitigation plan by hardening the grid and enhancing situational awareness with detection systems.

Wildfire risk reduction, wildfire mitigation and wildfire resilience are now common descriptors used to encapsulate the strategic investments, operational modifications and public partnerships utilities throughout the West are leveraging to keep communities safe. An ongoing process, this work is laying the foundation for long-term solutions that will enable utilities to deliver reliable and resilient power to customers through extreme weather events, including wildfires.

Portland General Electric (PGE) is in a multiyear phase of advancing its wildfire mitigation plan, from crunching data to better understand where the greatest and most impactful wildfire threats in its service area currently exist to executing on large capital system-hardening efforts to reduce the chance its equipment is the source of a potentially catastrophic wildfire event.

In 2019, PGE developed its first wildfire mitigation plan and, shortly thereafter, stood up a dedicated wildfire mitigation and resiliency (WM&R) team. This team is the big-picture planning and boots on the ground that reflects the utility’s commitment to wildfire risk reduction. While focused on numerous actions to tackle potential wildfire risks, the team also works closely with key partners across the region, including local and state emergency management and other electric service providers, to foster a coordinated effort to mitigate a risk that potentially impacts everyone.

“There is no one-size-fits-all response to wildfire,” said Bill Messner, PGE’s director of WM&R. “We have a deeper understanding of where the greatest risk is and we’re delivering risk-reduction plans based on that analysis. But this work extends beyond wildfire season — ensuring system resiliency and making risk-management decisions is a year-round, multifaceted effort.”

AI Camera Detection System

As of today, PGE is investing approximately US$110 million over five years in technologies, capital hardening of the electric system, data platforms and expertise to enhance its resiliency and situational awareness. These investments are an integral part of the utility’s compliance with North American Electric Reliability Corporation standards and enable better geographic information system data quality, thereby improving operational efficiencies — whether that is managing vegetation, surveying, or design and engineering.

As an example, PGE’s remote sensing program, a capital investment, uses light detection and ranging data, aerial imagery and hyperspectral imagery. The PGE team then uses analytics to inform predictive modeling for wildfire, asset management and geographic risk modeling. PGE also collaborates with fire and state agencies to make iterative improvements to the modeling. As a result, the technology helps PGE to make decisions that consider public safety, environmental and customer impacts, and costs in high-risk fire zones and public safety power shutoff areas.

Wildfires are caused by a wide array of factors, and another of PGE’s remote sensing investments is a cutting-edge Pano HD artificial intelligence camera detection system, which can detect ignitions and triangulate their location in real time. PGE has 26 Pano AI cameras that cover high-risk fire zones, and the company shares this increased situational awareness with nearly 40 land management and fire agencies across Oregon.

Minutes matter when managing a fire. In the summer of 2022, PGE’s array of AI cameras detected a fire south of Hagg Lake 140 minutes before traditional 911 and satellite detection methods. Fire crews with the Oregon Department of Forestry were able to drive directly to the incident, whereas in the past, it could take hours to identify the location of a fire.

“The Pano AI cameras enable PGE to keep up with the pace of climate change and wildfire risk while system hardening projects go from planning to execution,” Messner noted. “We are contributing to wildfire risk reduction across the state of Oregon and are serving as a leader in game-changing wildfire management and situational awareness.”

Early Fault Detection System

PGE has deployed an early fault detection (EFD) system, enabling operators to detect abnormalities in equipment or operations before a failure occurs. These cutting-edge risk management devices listen to the electrical noise coursing through power lines, which helps to reduce wildfire risk and improve reliability by minimizing outage time and, more importantly, allows for proactive intervention to correct faults before they occur.

PGE put this new system to use in the summer of 2022, when a power line sustained damage in a high-risk fire zone near Mount Hood, Oregon. Understanding what was going on and where enabled PGE crews to correct the issue before a downed-wire ignition event could take place. PGE is placing EFD sensors in high-risk fire zones, which will help to minimize outage time by reducing the time it takes to travel to the fault location, which, depending on conditions, can take hours.

Rooted in Safety

Even in historically wet, mild Oregon, summers are getting hotter and drier, resulting in longer fire seasons and an overall increased risk of wildfires. PGE is working harder than ever to reduce that risk while delivering reliable service.

Looking to the future, the company continues to enhance its situational awareness through advanced AI and tech, as well as using data analysis to improve on tried-and-true system hardening tactics for quicker and efficient project delivery. Whether these strategic investments live under the terms risk reduction, mitigation, or resilience the fact remains that this important work is rooted in a core company principle: Safety.

Dan Nuñez is Wildfire Planning & Analytics manager at Portland General Electric. He is a certified project management professional and is certified with the Institute of Asset Management. He is also a developer and change manager for ISO-55000 & ISO-31000 business integration and practices for asset management and involved with the Oregon Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is a graduate of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo with a B.S. in structural engineering.

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