WILDFIRES ARE OUR NUMBER ONE BUSINESS RISK
Increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. This is the alarming picture which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints in its latest report which has been described as a ‘code red’ for humanity. The impact of a warming planet affects every one of us and businesses need to urgently adapt to the consequences this brings.
The last few months alone have been yet another reality check of the impact of a changing climate: devastating floods, wildfires in Europe and northern California, record-breaking snowfall in Madrid, dust storms in China, and the deadly landfall of hurricane Ida in the United States. The human impact is severe along with the economic impact. US President Joe Biden indicated that extreme weather will cost his country $100 billion USD in 2021. Referred to as ‘black swan’ events in the IPCC report, they are often classified as one of the top threats to businesses, especially to those whose infrastructure is directly exposed to these kinds of natural disasters.
As a south-east Australian electricity distribution company with grid assets worth more than $4 billion AUD, we are one of these businesses. At United Energy, we have listed catastrophic wildfires as our number one business risk, taking them extremely seriously. So much so that we organize monthly wildfire meetings to stay on top of the situation at all times. Next to southern California and the south of France, south-east Australia is considered one of the world’s wildfire hotspots.
As United Energy’s Head of Network Performance and Management Systems and former Sustainability Manager, wildfires are personal to me.
Twelve years ago, on ‘Black Saturday’ as it is known to Australians, I witnessed Victoria’s emergency services battle another catastrophic wildfire from the heart of the state’s control center as the fires’ embers reached the suburbs of Melbourne.
In Victoria, the wildfire season is now seven days longer per year for the past ten years.
A government investigation into the causes of the 2009 wildfires concluded that five out of the 11 major fires which raged that February were sparked by power lines. This is unacceptable and exacerbates our commitment to reducing wildfire risks.
It is our obligation to our community and our environment to render our grid as resilient as possible.
TECHNOLOGIES TO PREVENT WILDFIRES
We were able to use the 2009 wildfires as a catalyst within United Energy for putting fire safety at the top of our agenda. Our grid’s resilience has benefited enormously from technical and digital changes we have made over the past years. For example, we have implemented a digital monitoring system for our network that alerts us of any irregularities on the power lines. Just shy of 80 percent of our network is overhead and being exposed to the outdoors means our assets have to withstand a variety of factors that are out of our control. One of them is wildlife interference. Sadly, animals like possums or birds can get caught in our overhead lines and present a fire hazard so this is being watched closely with the help of digitalization. Additionally, we have installed a partial discharge detecting tool on around 100 kilometers of our power lines in one of our highest fire risk areas in order to detect faults before they occur.
We have also been able to benefit from the successful rollout of smart meters across Victoria. Algorithms based on smart meter data are excellent at detecting wiring faults before they could trigger a fire which has allowed us to identify potential defects on the low-voltage network. Smart meters have been a very useful technological tool that has helped us render not only our network but also people’s homes more resilient. I believe they are an integral part of the intelligent energy system of the future.
We have identified design constraints as one of the key triggers for fires. As a result, we have revised many of our design standards in collaboration with technology companies like Hitachi Energy.
For example, we have upgraded our network electronics to withstand temperatures of 40-50°C instead of 30-40°C as was common in many original designs. We have also changed the way we lay underground cables, for example, as we have noticed that the movement from drier soil can damage our equipment more quickly. Our colleagues at a local gas utility have also complained about pipelines cracking more often due to drier soil as more frequent droughts are an increasing issue in our area.
More than half of fire starts on our networks are attributable to pole fires, so we have also adapted their designs. The new poles that we are installing now have been conceptualized with 2050 climate conditions in mind.
Following the Black Saturday wildfires, the state of Victoria pushed forward with the installation of Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiters (REFCLs) in order to reduce wildfire hazards from electricity networks. REFCLs are able to reduce fault current almost instantaneously and have shown to prevent power lines from starting fires. United Energy was the first Australian grid operator to successfully trial and install a REFCL system in 2009.
We are stern believers in adopting pioneering technology to make our grid more resilient and our past experiences with wildfires have certainly prompted us to be more daring in trying out new tools.
Indeed, among potential wildfire causes that we have identified, there are thermal overloads of surge arresters installed on distribution overhead lines traversing wildfire prone areas such as forest grass and leaf litter. Hitachi Energy’s Spark Prevention Unit (SPU) provides a solution to this challenge, as it disconnects surge arresters from the distribution grid when thermally overloaded, preventing any arcing, sparking or emission of hot particles and thus significantly reducing the risk of igniting a fire.
REDUCING FIRE STARTS
Thanks to these changes enabled by technological advances and digitalization, over the past ten years we have been able to reduce fire starts by 30-35%.
A smart and resilient power system not only helps prevent fires but is also crucial at times when catastrophic wildfires do break out. Keeping the lights on during these stressful events is essential to the local community’s wellbeing. Those in a fire-prone area will, more than ever, want to stay connected to television and radio news and call loved ones. Maintaining electricity supply is also important for powering home devices such as pumps or vehicles.
TRIALING FRESH IDEAS
The multiplying challenges being thrown at us by climate change are a great reason to seek new technological solutions. Personally, I have never been happy with the status quo and always want to push for improvements which often lie within trialing fresh ideas. Looking at how tech-savvy the graduates employed at our company are, it is clear that digitalization will play an ever more important role in the future energy system.
Digitalization dramatically increases grid resilience and optimizes investments and replacements. Monitoring devices (of any asset, like circuit-breaker, surge arrester, etc.) avoid risks of major failures and related unplanned outages, enabling remote software to display supervision and measurement data to perform a remote inspection. So, in case of any problem, unproductive travel efforts can be eliminated, and needed spare parts can be made available.
In this context, augmented reality supports first-time-fix-rate and solves site problems faster than ever. Product and service experts like Hitachi Energy can share real-time, visual instructions with site technicians, thus minimizing downtime.
Control devices, such as point-on-wave switching and low-power instrument transformers, can also reinforce digital configurations to replace physical changes and thus save materials, reduce assets and grid stress, and increase assets lifespan.
The possibilities of digitalization are countless. I am excited to see what role new technologies will play over the coming decades in helping us navigate the energy transition and face climate change challenges.