Author: David Buckley, Technosylva COO
Energy utilities across the United States – not just California – are challenged with reducing wildfire risk and increasing their reliability as part of their on-going operations. So, how do you assess risk to support more informed decision making? How do you address those operational and planning requirements. First, we need to understand that risk has a different meaning to utility companies. Generally, wildfire risk is the possibility of loss or harm occurring. Yet, a utility’s wildfire risk is unique. It's the combination of probability of an ignition with the consequences from that ignition, compared to another. In short, not all ignitions are created equal. Understanding the consequence from one ignition compared to another provides you the advantage to choose the correct action. Electric utility companies are in a journey with the evolving risk of wildfire. They are faced with ignition risks from their assets and external ignitions threatening their asset infrastructure. Knowing what you need to bring along for this journey is more important than ever.
Let’s look at having knowledge about consequences. We need to examine the challenges with operations that highly focus on electric utility assets as a potential source for ignition of fires. Critical to that factor is quantifying the potential impacts – also referred to as consequence – from wildfires that may be caused by your electric utility assets through failure by extreme weather conditions that ultimately would result in an ignition.
The key mechanism to do that is integrating various data variables. Remember that not all ignitions, like not all fires, are created equal. The ideal mechanism is to apply sophisticated fire spread prediction modeling, so you can simulate the potential spread of fires and then accordingly, estimate the number of impacts with respect to the landscape and the things we care about in the landscape, such as people, homes, critical facilities, etc.
So, what's required for this to occur in an operational context? First, you need to have robust weather forecast data with enhanced temporal and spatial resolution. Publicly available data sources are typically not adequate. Utilities have used weather as a surrogate for wildfire risk in the past, but that's proven not to be good enough. Weather data needs to be integrated with observation and that allows for operational situational awareness. In addition, for predictive modeling, weather forecasts have proven to be very accurate and allow an outlook of five plus days, so a utility can see by the hour what weather is coming down the pipe and how that weather translates into actual wildfire risk. This risk being the probability of loss or harm and again, your main concern is that your assets might start fires.
In California for example, roughly 92% of fires are not caused by electric utility issues. However, those 8% that were, caused significant impacts unfortunately over the last 10 years. What you need to have is robust situational awareness and the ability to forecast a fire’s spread. Knowing which wildfires are at which status help us to understand risk of each fire that occurs on the landscape within your particular service territory. This includes the wildfire’s likelihood to escape initial attack and become a larger extended attack fire. We know that for most fires, if they get beyond the first burning period of roughly 8 hours, then they have greater potential for impacts. Of course, this depends on your asset locations and the proximity of the people you serve.
Utilities also need to be concerned about impact to their lines – particularly from a reliability perspective, never mind a replacement perspective – from wildfires that may occur. This is important because those wildfires can affect your reliability. Robust situational awareness and forecast modeling will help you pre-position crews and decide when to initialize your emergency operations center, so that you can have quick responses to outages that may be caused by weather conditions, whether that's a wildfire or extreme weather conditions, such as wind. This is fundamental, regardless of whether or not your asset caused that wildfire or is in the path of a wildfire.
Beyond situational awareness and forecasting is having the tools for your longer-term mitigation planning. This means bringing efficiency to your asset hardening and replacement and vegetation management planning. Here, historical weather data comes into play to run predictions to identify which assets would be more prone to have significant impacts under all potential weather conditions, not just current events.
Utilities are in a journey with wildfire. They need to reduce their wildfire risk and increase their reliability and operations safety. So, what will you bring along for this journey? Learn more about the modeling science behind this work and how that science is put into practice.