Wildfire mitigation with data

(This piece was originally published in Altruistic's blog by Amanda Freick / Chief Revenue Officer)

It is no secret that the impact of wildfires has become devastating as of late. This is of particular concern within the electric utility industry with frightening statistics such as “since 2015, electrical power lines have caused six of California’s most destructive wildfires” making headlines. The silver lining in this tragic situation is it’s driving innovation like never before. Products such as sensors that measure environmental indices, artificial intelligence powered cameras, and line sag measurement devices are all being considered in the name of protecting our communities, our environment, and our assets. The real question is, where do we start?

To move forward, we must take a step back. Where are we now?

Step one in tackling any challenge is gaining a full understanding of the current state. When looking to apply technology, we must include a clear picture of the data available to support the effort. Data that drives decisions, data that helps predict future state, data that highlights risk.

This first step is often overlooked and underestimated. In the case of electric utilities, data can come from hundreds, if not thousands of sources. Operational data, asset performance data, maintenance data…. Each with their own database (or sheet of paper), user interface, and internal client base. The key is to elegantly bring together all of the disparate data into a safe, accessible location such that insights and innovation can truly take place. Solutions like Utilihive from Greenbird Integration Technology deliver both the technical infrastructure platform (connectivity, integration, data ingestion, data lake, API management) and pre-configured integration content or accelerators (adapters, data flows, orchestrations, utility data model, energy data services, monitoring and reporting dashboards) to speed up the delivery of innovative data driven services for digital utilities looking to truly take advantage of big data data. Leveraging platforms such as this optimizes a utility’s ability to bring together all of this data without the need for major IT architecture overhauls.

Centralizing the Data of the Distributed Energy System.

The energy system itself is becoming more distributed. With grid-edge technologies, both hardware and software, it’s vital to understand that the traditional centralized, top-down approach to IT infrastructure is no longer efficient to manage all of this data. By organizing data into an accessible platform with plug and play architecture, the speed at which new technologies can be tested and deployed upon the ecosystem increases dramatically.

In addition, having access to this data across organizational silos brings increased opportunity for further value. The visibility provided for a project, such as Distributed Energy Resource implementation, could also provide valuable data to be used in risk assessment for programs like wildfire mitigation. Although potentially unrelated at surface level, the data supports both. Breaking down barriers between data sets enables innovation.

You already have usable data for wildfire mitigation…

This brings us to the next step of digital transformation towards wildfire mitigation – what does the data tell us? Leveraging insights through modeling and algorithm development can support understanding where to make investments in technology for the greatest ROI. “In my days as a reliability engineer, we were constantly looking at how to prioritize investment especially when it came to upgrades in the name of wildfire mitigation. The joke was – just look up! It’s all old and needs to be upgraded. By aligning outage data with asset maintenance records, we were able to prioritize inspection visits based on predicted asset life and optimize our operational budgets” says Amanda Freick, Altruistic CRO and former utility engineer.

In another example, an electric utility was finding that in quality assurance (QA) checks, their visual inspections team was missing infractions at an alarming rate. In addition, their outages were increasing with the cause being equipment failure. This outage type is especially dangerous as equipment failures often include opportunities for the system to spark, thus providing a dangerous ignition source. Based on correlation of the inspection data, QA report, and outage information the decision was made to pilot an AI powered visual inspection tool. The inspection resources could upload imagery from cameras, cell phones, etc. The tool proved to increase inspection quality by 85%, increase productivity by 5X, and decrease management costs by 50% for the overall inspection program. Through intelligent use of their resources and data, this utility not only mitigated a clear wildfire risk, but optimized operations at the same time. In addition, this data can now be used for other programs with ease due to the platform architecture deployed.

None of this data was NEW. It didn’t require additional truck rolls for sensor installation or an increase in inspection cycles. It required a new approach to existing work practices (adding photo capture to existing inspections) and looking at new correlations between existing data sets. The new technology and associated operational costs of course have immense value, but making informed decisions based on existing data will always deliver the highest ROI.

Innovation Expedited.

When the time comes to implement those new technologies, the lift to integrate the data of said technology always seems to cause heartburn. Questions such as “have we talked to IT yet?” and “where will this data live?” always seem to come up. Leveraging a platformed strategy has proven to not only speed up and ease the integration, but also fosters innovation and improves communication.

In the case of wildfire mitigation, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, mother nature (or those who make poor decisions and initiate destruction) waits for no one. That is why strategies that include not just immediate returns of speed to implementation, but forward looking benefits are vital. A strong foundation is key to lasting improvements.

Your Data, Organized = Better Decisions.

By creating an optimized approach to collecting, managing, and accessing data, an organization can increase the speed at which decisions are made. These decisions now have the potential to deliver increased value with less risk. When it comes to addressing wildfire risk, this is all the more important.

Related stories