Utilities are not solely responsible for the wildfires that have ravaged the United States in recent years, but they are responsible for some of the most deadly and destructive fires seen to date.
The most notable example is the November 2018 Camp fire in California, caused by a poorly maintained Pacific Gas & Electric power line that ultimately led to the deaths of at least 85 people. Facing billions of dollars in liabilities, PG&E filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2019, emerging earlier this year with billions of dollars in debt. Last month, the utility brought on a new CEO in seeking to restore public confidence in its ability to safely operate its Northern California grid.
PG&E and other California utilities have sought to improve grid hardening, vegetation clearing and system monitoring under pressure from state policymakers. But the work is slow and imprecise. In the meantime, utilities have attempted to reduce the risk of sparking wildfires through heavily criticized "public-safety power shutoff" events.
California regulators recently approved wildfire mitigation plans for the state’s three large investor-owned utilities, as well as several smaller electricity providers. PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are expected to collectively spend more than $15 billion to reduce the threat of wildfires caused by their power grids through 2022. California utilities say they’re looking to state-of-the-art technologies and techniques to help in this effort.
Some of the advanced technologies that will help utilities mitigate fire risks are still in the early stages of development and commercialization. Finding financing for these solutions can be a challenge for entrepreneurs. But that may be shifting as utilities, governments and the broader public come to understand the cost of inaction.
To help California mitigate its ever-growing wildfires, California Sustainable Energy Entrepreneur Development (CalSEED) program, in collaboration with the California Energy Commission (CEC) and accelerator New Energy Nexus, recently selected 28 startups to receive grants of $150,000 each, including five companies focused specifically on protecting the power grid from wildfires and mitigating public-safety power shutoff events. The program aims to bring new players into this high-stakes space.
“Through the [Electric Program Investment Charge] program, the CEC partners with CalSEED in supporting California’s leading entrepreneurs with the resources they need to develop and advance clean energy innovations, including technologies that will help build wildfire resilience into the grid,” CEC Vice Chair Janea Scott told Greentech Media. “With over 4 million acres burned and more than 10,000 structures destroyed or damaged this season alone, advances in both wildfire science and technologies that can increase resilience or help harden the grid against the impacts of climate change are becoming even more critical for the health and safety of all Californians.”
Here’s a look at five startups California is looking to for solutions to utility-caused wildfires.
Timothy Barat worked on a line crew and as an electrician before co-founding Gridware, which uses sensors and software to provide grid monitoring for the power distribution grid. Having worked in the field, Barat is familiar with the drawbacks of traditional utility grid monitoring and maintenance practices, which he says can overlook weaknesses in the system that lead to wildfires.
Gridware’s solution centers on deploying a network of low-cost sensors to monitor poles, conductors and other equipment on the distribution grid. Through the combination of remote sensors and risk simulation software, Gridware can give utilities situational awareness across their system, alert them to faults in real time and predict where malfunctions might occur in the future. The early warning system enables utilities to respond to irregularities before they become failures. Gridware’s solution also operates independently of the grid to ensure that it will continue to function during a power outage.
“Wildfires are caused because of aging infrastructure and the manual inspection process,” said Barat. “If a line or power pole comes down or a cross-line fails, a lot of utilities might not know until someone in the public notices. And these are things that can start fires. If we can detect all of these issues, there is a future where utilities don’t start fires anymore.”
As the number of wildfires in California increases, regulators and utilities are looking to new technologies that will help inform cost-effective grid investments. With Gridware’s solution, Barat claims that utilities can not only reduce their risk of sparking a fire, but also demonstrate that risk reduction to regulators through comprehensive asset health profiles.
Gridware has partnered with a Western utility to test its new technology and establish a proof of concept. Early results show that the technology can detect pole rot and decay with 83 percent accuracy. The company plans to use its new CalSEED funding to build out its hardware as well as the firmware to support its machine-learning and analytics system.
Thomas Karagianes and his business partner Iain McClatchie, who previously worked as technology lead for Google Street View cameras, founded Tolo to help address the mountain pine beetle problem ravaging forests in the West. The idea was to build a high-resolution camera that could spot signs of beetle infestations from the air and notify the U.S. Forest Service of where the hotspots were. Flash forward five years, and while the camera is still central to Tolo’s business model, the use case has evolved to focus on remote inspection for utility assets.
A relative of Karagianes' lived in Paradise, Calif. and lost her home to the deadly wildfire there in 2018. The Camp fire was caused by a broken, century-old C-hook intended to keep high-voltage transmission wires separate from the tower. The breakage that led to the destruction of an entire town was only about an inch wide. A failure like that, according to Karagianes, is difficult for an infrastructure inspector to see from the ground.
Tolo’s custom-built camera deployed on a plane or a drone, coupled with the startup’s patent-pending Parallax Imagery software platform, allows inspectors to identify risks to electrical infrastructure that inspectors may miss in the field. Utilities have tried using cameras on drones and other aircraft to help identify issues on the grid, but Karagianes says the images are difficult to assess unless users also have a sophisticated photo management program that can sift through the files and flag problem areas. Another drawback of conventional imagery analysis is that users can’t get a full, detailed look at what they’re trying to examine.
Tolo’s system overcomes these issues by using machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to give clients insights into the status and reliability of their asset. The company's Parallax Imagery software also enables users to inspect objects as if they were in the field. By stitching images together, the system can give clients full maneuverability around an asset as well as the ability to zoom in on details.
"Traditional wildfire-fighting techniques work well, up to a point. A whole host of factors, including climate change, have spawned much larger, hotter and more dangerous fires that traditional techniques can’t address," said Karagianes. "The best way to address fires at that scale is to prevent them ever starting. Most of the innovations we see on the technology side today share this focus on prevention, rather than reaction."
The CalSEED funding will help Tolo test its remote inspection platform for utility assets in the field and add new features to its technology, such as the ability to measure real-world distances within Tolo’s software application. In addition to this work with utilities, Tolo is developing a pilot program with CalFire and other local fire departments to perform remote defensible-space assessments that give property owners more information on how to protect their homes from fires.
“The basic idea is if you do preventative maintenance it’s a whole lot cheaper than doing the after work. Having good intelligence tells you what to fix,” said Karagianes. “It’s like the old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
ALD Technical Solutions
San Diego-based startup ALD Technical Solutions has developed an advanced composite technology dubbed a Composite Wire Wrap that’s designed to mechanically reinforce existing aluminum conductor steel-reinforced (ACSR) cables. Adding composite material, such as carbon fiber, to high-voltage transmission lines allows for increased power capacity, which means that utilities can transmit more renewable energy to customers during high-demand hours, said founder Davoud Zamani. These advanced materials also prevent sagging caused by increased power capacity on a line, which can cause wildfires.
“If you increase the power...[and] the current, you're going to create heat. This heat is going to cause a kind of thermal expansion of aluminum and also steel, and the steel is going to sag,” said Zamani. “We cannot go above 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) because we have a limitation for the steel and aluminum. But with our advanced composite material, we can go up to 500 [degrees] Fahrenheit or around 250 degrees Celsius.”
Overheated cables start to sag over time and can sway in the wind and hit trees, which could spark a fire if not addressed. Building new ACSR transmission lines is expensive and typically requires approval from local and federal authorities. By retrofitting the lines with composite materials, grid owners have an opportunity to save money and reduce system downtime. ALD Technical Solutions is currently performing qualification testing of its material at a UCLA laboratory.
The support from CalSEED will enable the company to complete its qualifying work and take the technology into the field. Zamani said he is already working with two California utilities and hopes to have a customer demonstration project deployed next year.
Topolonet has developed a proprietary algorithm named BusID and implemented that algorithm in a software system for real-time, accurate data on the state and topology of the transmission grid.
“Every node of the electrical grid is called a bus, so we are giving an ID, an identity, to each single node,” said co-founder Reza Sabzehgar. “It’s like having a Social Security number for every single person; as soon as you get their ID you can get the whole story of their life. That’s what we're doing here with BusID for the grid.”
Existing systems such as SCADA transfer data from the grid in minutes, whereas Topolonet’s software can react in seconds, saving grid operators valuable time in the event of an abnormality, said Sabzehgar. Fast and accurate data transfer could help utilities avoid deadly grid failures, such as the 2003 Northeast blackout and the 2018 Camp fire. With support from CalSEED, Topolonet plans to complete the engineering design and begin implementation of the company’s first commercial product.
Kerry McBee spent most of his career conducting forensic investigations of power system failures before launching inRG Solutions, which aims to deploy a novel system for continuously evaluating the physical condition of the electric grid. “I have investigated thousands of events on power systems,” said McBee. “And so I started thinking, ‘How could we actually prevent those?’ [I was] looking at it from the opposite end of the way I used to.”
The inRG system consists of multiple power line sensors and data collectors located at substations on the transmission grid. The sensor’s infrared camera and neural network are designed to autonomously identify the primary causes of power grid fires, including swinging conductors, broken equipment, a fallen line and vegetation interference. Still in its early stages, inRG Solutions aims to build a prototype with its CalSEED funding.