Tool developed in Texas to predict power failures now being tested in California to prevent wildfires

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (Nexstar) — The future of wildfire prevention and widespread power outages could soon be more predictable.

Researchers at Texas A&M University developed a diagnostic tool to identify failures in power systems and alert the power company.

“For days, weeks, or in some cases months before a catastrophic failure on the utility system, there is a precursor, there is an incipient failure condition,” said Don Russell, who led the research. “If we can detect that, we can do some things to fix it before that catastrophic failure.”

He and his team developed Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA). Seven Texas utilities have tested it already.

“Utilities today have nothing that tells them about the start of the event, they only know when the final failure occurs,” Russell explained.

“Electric utilities are very very good at what they do and they are using state of the art equipment that is available to them today,” he said. “But it is all reactive in nature, it waits until the bad thing happens and then they go cut off the power, find it, fix it, turn the power back on.”

By using DFA, power companies are adding a tool to the toolbox to discover power line problems and avoid pre-emptive power outages or fires actually sparking.

“It looks continually at the circuit and says ‘I want to see the very earliest stages of a failure so that I can tell an operator you need to go find and fix this,’” Russell said. “So, you avoid a downed lines or someone getting electrocuted later because there is a line on the ground or a fire started.”

Russell began studying power systems in the 1970s, but the work shifted to a fire focus after 32,000 acres were torched in Bastrop, less than an hour southeast of Austin.

It was the largest wildfire in Texas history, and the state then funded this wildfire prevention research.

“I’m not a fire guy per se,” he chuckled. “We started out looking for ways to make power systems reliable, we morphed into also detecting things that can prevent wildfires.”

“This device has the potential of saving lives and property in a very big way,” Russell said.

Two major California power companies are now testing the technology, following massive wildfires in the state.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) installed DFA on six of its distribution feeders at three different substations in the Napa Valley area, a spokesperson said.

“The technology is being evaluated along with other sensor technologies as a way to detect emerging conditions on the electric grid and improve situational awareness,” a PG&E spokesman said via email.

PG&E plans to pilot the technology through July.

Southern California Edison has installed equipment on 60 of its 4,600 circuits to begin testing in January.

“DFA will go hand-in-hand with a lot of our other ongoing efforts,” spokesman David Song said.

“We don’t think it’s a silver bullet necessarily, but it is going to be, we hope, an important tool — one of many in our toolkit — to ensure the public safety of all the communities that we serve.”

According to a spokesperson from Texas A&M University said DFA is being lined up for testing in Australia and New Zealand soon.

“There are so many bad consequences to a large wildfire,” Russell added. “If we can stop just one major wildfire, you are talking hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases.”

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