California Utilities Embracing Technology to Stop Fires. Is It Enough?

by J.D. Morris, The San Francisco Chronicle

With the start of the next wildfire season getting closer each day, California’s utility sector is racing to upgrade its technological capabilities. The goal: making power lines less likely to cause more disasters

California’s utility sector is scrambling to upgrade its technology, to make power lines less likely to cause fires. Utilities are banking on artificial intelligence (AI), expanding the use of fire-watching cameras, and improving the ability to monitor for dry and windy weather conditions.

The question as to whether these solutions will make a difference, in view of climate change, was emphasized at the inaugural wildfire technology summit convened by the California Public Utilities Commission. San Diego Gas & Electric has pushed to enhance its technology and wildfire prevention strategies, and the utility’s Caroline Winn said the employment of an algorithm that can detect a fault on a line and shut it down before it hits the ground is planned.

She also said the company will use AI to marshal “tens of millions of data points” to help it respond to risky fire conditions.

While the worst recent wildfires have been blamed on San Francisco’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co., some of the most prominent voices at the conference came from Southern California.

San Diego Gas & Electric underwent a major push to enhance its technology and wildfire prevention efforts after a series of major wildfires in 2007, Caroline Winn, the utility’s chief operating officer, said in a speech Wednesday. The fires, she said, were a “game changer” for the company.

It wasn’t easy to be the first California utility to take drastic steps such as intentionally turning off power lines when weather conditions threaten to spark wildfires, Winn said.

“We were making decisions at a time when people thought that we were wrong,” she said. “We knew deep down that we owe it to our customers, we owe it to our families, and we owe it to our communities to do what’s right and be a safe operator of the power grid. … We took that tragedy, and we turned it into action.”

DCL: For “AI” read “Complex Event Processing”! (See the recent article on CEP and AI below) The problem that California utilities are having is one of processing and aggregating millions of real-time events from thousands of power line sensors, cameras and automated weather stations to determine the nature of a possible fire situation. Remember the great north eastern blackout of 2003 – same thing today but with an Electrical grid being the culprit instead of a natural fire phenomenon.

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