New Technology Detects Power Line Problems Before They Spark Fires

December 10, 2019 Updated: December 10, 2019
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California utility companies are experimenting with new technology that could help prevent blackouts, preemptive power outages and wildfires ignited by faulty or downed transmission lines.

The technology, developed by Texas A&M University engineers, is a new kind of software called Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA). The software interprets variations in electrical current on utility circuits caused by deteriorating conditions or equipment failure and warns utility operators to respond to problems before they cause power outages or spark fires.

The new diagnostic tool was developed by Dr. B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his research team, including research professor Carl L. Benner.

Russell compared the advancement of DFA to computer-based diagnostic tools found in modern vehicles that warn drivers when fluids are running low or that an engine part is close to failure.

“Utility systems operate today like my 1950s Chevy,” Russell said. “They have some fuses and breakers and things, but they really don’t have anything diagnostic. They don’t have that computer under the hood telling them what’s about to go wrong.”

Over the last six years, more than a dozen utilities in Texas and elsewhere have successfully tested DFA technology, and Texas A&M researchers are gearing up for more experimentation in Australia and New Zealand.

Two of California’s biggest utility companies, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) are currently testing the new technology with support from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). SCE is testing 60 DFA monitors, while PG&E is testing six circuit-monitoring devices under two-year research contracts with Texas A&M.

Widespread use of DFA could lower maintenance costs and prevent future tragedies, according to Texas A&M researchers. The technology has the potential to save billions of dollars spent repairing damages from wildfires and prevent them from starting in the first place. A DFA instrument costs up to $15,000.

PG&E equipment failures have been blamed for causing a number of 2017 Northern California wildfires and last year’s Camp Fire, which burned 153,336 acres, destroyed 18,804 structures, gutted the town of Paradise, and left 85 people dead. In January, the utility giant filed for bankruptcy, citing billions of dollars in potential liabilities from the wildfires.

In a recently released CPUC report, the agency found that PG&E Gas and Electric failed to inspect and properly maintain the faulty transmission line that started the Camp Fire, which it said could have been prevented. This wasn’t an isolated incident but “indicative of an overall pattern of inadequate inspection and maintenance of PG&E’s transmission facilities,” the commission’s safety division stated in its 700-page report.

“DFA is a new tool, allowing utilities to transform their operating procedures to find and fix problems before catastrophic failures, “Russell said. “Utilities operators need real time situational awareness of the health of their circuits … DFA does that.”

The DFA software uses a sophisticated set of algorithms based on patterns discovered and refined through 15 years of research that involved monitoring in-service distribution lines at more than a dozen electrical utilities, according to Texas A&M researchers.

Electrical power outages are commonly caused by falling trees tearing down lines or failures of devices such as clamps, switches, conductors and connectors. These devices often deteriorate over weeks or months, impacting electrical current in small ways before an actual failure—perhaps triggered by high winds.

Visual inspections and preventative maintenance of electrical equipment are only marginally helpful, because deterioration of electrical equipment is often difficult or impossible to see, and utility companies have long sought a new way to detect problems, especially with aging infrastructure.

Before DFA technology was developed, electric utility companies often didn’t realize there was an equipment failure until a customer called to report a power outage or sparks from power lines—sometimes too late to prevent a wildfire from spreading out of control.

But now, DFA can continuously monitor current sensors and apply its algorithms to detect and report abnormalities for investigation and repair. Texas A&M engineers developed DFA to help utility companies improve reliability in general, but also saw its potential for preventing wildfires.

DFA technology could also help utility companies reduce the number and size of preemptive power outages, which now are disrupting daily life in many areas of Northern California during peak fire season when weather conditions are dry and windy.

“Power is being turned off with nothing known to be wrong with a given circuit. Utilities need a crystal ball, something telling them which circuit is going to start a fire tomorrow because it is already unhealthy. We are kind of that crystal ball,” Russell said.

While DFA can’t pinpoint all electrical equipment failures, Russell and Benner say it’s the only diagnostic tool that can analyze miles of working circuits in real time and “identify explicitly what is failing.”