National Magazine Highlights SDG&E’s State-of-the-Art Wildfire Protection
Editor's Note: Our President, Scott Drury, recently sat down with Public Utilities Fortnightly for a conversation about the portfolio of cutting-edge tools and engineering innovations that SDG&E has developed to enhance wildfire protection in our region. Published in the June 2018 issue of the national magazine (www.fortnightly.com), the Q & A takes readers behind the scenes on how our company uses predictive computer models to assist with pre-positioning firefighting resources, where we have deployed high-definition cameras to detect fires early and triangulate their location, and how we’ve engineered our infrastructure – including our wires and poles – to be more resilient.
Permission to republish this article has been granted by the publisher.
State-of-the-Art Wildfire Protection
Challenged by Broader Resilience Responsibility
Steve Mitnick, with Scott Drury
Scott Drury is President of Sempra San Diego Gas & Electric.
PUF: How do you see the fire risk? How do you challenge it?
San Diego Gas & Electric's Scott Drury: If you look at what's happening in the physical environment, you're seeing more frequent and much more significant wildfires in the last few years than we had a decade ago.
It is incumbent upon all the stakeholders in the state of California to come together, think differently, and continue to innovate on how we can reduce the probability of a wildfire ignition. And to substantially reduce the impact of an ignition when one does occur, regardless of the source.
As fire safety relates to SDG&E infrastructure, we try to start with the design and engineering of our system, making sure that we're building a strong, robust, and resilient grid. Our most significant innovations are in advanced technologies. They improve our real-time situational awareness and inform our operating decisions.
Also, it's important that we collaborate with first responders, to ensure that they have all the benefits of the innovations that are taking place at San Diego Gas & Electric, in order to better protect the region.
PUF: You've gone at it with hardware and technology and processes. Tell us about that.
Scott Drury: We've made substantial investments in hardening the grid. We've converted sixteen thousand wood poles to steel poles that are fire resistant, and taller, creating more ground clearance to further reduce the risk of objects coming in contact with the wires. And we've increased the spacing within conductors to reduce the chance of debris getting caught in between the wires. We've done a great deal of engineering work to make the grid more resilient.
During high fire season and extreme weather events, we disable advanced reclosing devices on the system to provide another layer of protection. And if conditions warrant, we proactively de-energize power to protect public safety.
With wind and wildfires being the biggest threat to our system, we invested significantly in advanced technologies, including deploying the largest utility-owned weather network in America. It gives us very granular, actionable information about the physical environment at any point in time.
That includes granular information on wind speed, humidity levels, and temperature, which are then combined with live and dead fuel moisture content of the vegetation. Then we put that data into a model that is predictive of the probability of a major catastrophic fire, and we share that information broadly with first responders and public safety officials.
PUF: When you say dead fuel, it's the ground, tree branches, and things like that? Whether they're dry or wet?
Scott Drury: Yes. It's also the trees, because if they're dry, that's not a good thing.
PUF: You have equipment to detect if the poles are in trouble or if they're falling or the wires are falling. What's that?
Scott Drury: We're deploying some advanced operational technologies around reclosing and other very sensitive settings. It's called the falling conductor protection system. This innovative system kicks in if a conductor breaks loose, then that conductor could de-energize itself before it came in contact with the ground. That happens in a split second.
We have a very high level of situational awareness with the technology that we've deployed. We have over a hundred cameras throughout our service territory. Through collaboration with UCSD, we've got fifteen high-definition tilt-pan-zoom cameras on mountaintops that really see our total high-risk fire region.
This is important in the early recognition and detection of a fire, as it allows the first responders to put that fire out quickly. In the back-country, a lot of times there'll be reports of smoke or fire, but no one really knows exactly where it is. These cameras can help.
We use these cameras in conjunction with CAL FIRE. We're able to triangulate from two cameras to a specific GPS location in the back-country, and dispatch firefighting resources to that precise location in a way that we've never been able to do before.
PUF: What do you do with all this data?
Scott Drury: We have done a lot of data analysis and created predictive modeling. We run millions of simulations a week on the environmental conditions that we're in, in real time. We run the probability of an ignition and the rate and direction of spread, based on forecast weather and fuels data. That is enormously useful to us, because it allows us to operate our infrastructure in a very safe and thoughtful way.
It's incredibly valuable to firefighting agencies like CAL FIRE and San Diego Fire-Rescue, because they use that information in their own situational awareness, their own staffing levels, and their own dispatching protocols.
PUF: Did you create all these models and systems?
Scott Drury: Most of them were created here at SDG&E by our meteorologists.
PUF: You have your own weather men and women. What do they do?
Scott Drury: We do. They're not your typical TV meteorologists. They're very creative, innovative folks, who have created tools that have been adopted by the National Weather Service and other agencies. We can get very granular information down to the circuit level, which allows us to make the most informed operating decision.
If you were to look at an individual circuit within the high-risk fire area, you may see varying differentials in wind speed. We have the ability today to identify where the risks are highest, given the conditions that we talked about, and make decisions about how we operate the system. Also, how we pre-position firefighting resources that we contract with, and whether the conditions are such that it's warranted to de-energize that portion of the circuit for public safety.
PUF: How does that process work?
Scott Drury: We have very sophisticated forecast models that we look at a week to ten days out. We monitor in real time. As we approach those dangerous conditions, it's important that we communicate to the first responder community, the local elected officials, and customers who could be impacted, and let them know that our region is facing some potential serious wildfire weather.
They need to be aware of that and have their own personal emergency plan developed. They need to know there is the potential for proactive de-energization of their circuit, for public safety. As conditions continue to evolve, we're very mindful of staying in contact with those customers on a regular basis throughout the event.
PUF: How have people responded to this?
Scott Drury: One of the things that stakeholders share is a deep concern for public safety, human life and avoiding property loss. We do not take the decision to de-energize a customer lightly. We do everything that is possible to keep the power on safely.
But when the environmental conditions warrant de-energization, we have generally had broad support. Although no one prefers to do it, most people recognize that the inconvenience of a power outage is preferable to the potential for catastrophic wildfires, when we're in those extreme weather conditions.
That said, we are thoughtful about continuing to seek input from customers in doing after-action reports and gathering feedback that we can incorporate into our programs and our customer support, to make our programs better and reduce the impact on customers.
PUF: Can you see a positive effect? Where folks have said, "You are making a difference."
Scott Drury: We have a very strong group of partners. I think the first responder community has been very appreciative of the portfolio of tools that we've developed and our willingness to share those tools openly and freely. Also, of their ability to use them to make better decisions for themselves.
Each day, the best information we have available, from all of those tools and technologies, is delivered to the smartphones of firefighters in our region.
We take great pride in the privilege that we're given to serve more than three million customers and meet their energy needs. We see ourselves as an important part of the broader, overall community.
I think we all share a common interest of ensuring the safety of this region. Anything that we can do to enable first responders or customers to be safer and better prepared, we're happy to do.