Judsen Bruzgul is senior director of climate adaptation and resilience and climate center senior fellow at ICF, and Neil Weisenfeld is a senior energy resilience expert at ICF.
U.S. utilities are grappling with a pressing challenge: their electric assets are located in areas that are becoming increasingly vulnerable to wildfires.
This vulnerability is twofold. Utility infrastructure, particularly transmission and distribution lines, has caused wildfires. At the same time, wildfires can damage utility assets, leading to significant power outages for consumers. The situation is exacerbated by climate change, with rising temperatures and drier conditions amplifying wildfire risks.
In parts of the Western U.S., data suggests that a 1°C increase in average annual temperature could result in up to a 600% rise in median burned areas in some forest types. Additionally, the growing population in wildland-urban interface areas further intensifies the wildfire threat to communities.
Managing wildfire risk is a challenge
Utilities confront multifaceted hurdles in wildfire risk management spanning customer concerns, asset vulnerabilities and technological limitations. Customers bear the brunt of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS, done to reduce the risk of causing wildfires during inclement weather, with vulnerable communities feeling the most impact. Additionally, the intricate maze of right-of-way issues and customer agreements often hampers access to transmission lines, pivotal for vegetation management and risk mitigation.
Aging assets, compounded by climate change, elevate wildfire risks. Diverse power systems complicate risk identification. Varied ownerships and regulations across jurisdictions further challenge standardized risk management, with many standards bypassing explicit wildfire mitigation.
To address the increasing risk of wildfire, utilities must embrace short- and long-term strategies that emphasize asset protection, real-time risk assessment and infrastructure investments.
Short-term operational strategies
Utilities should assess wildfire ignition and spread likelihood in near real-time, factoring in grid conditions and forecasted weather. This risk is influenced by weather, vegetation and moisture levels.
Enhanced weather stations offer granular data, aiding precise PSPS decisions. Cameras and imagery from satellites, like that provided by NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System, can help provide early wildfire detection. Effective communication with municipalities further aids rapid wildfire identification. Community risk also hinges on population density, infrastructure types and road layouts affecting evacuation capabilities.
To reduce wildfire risk seasonally, utilities should adjust grid control settings, implement PSPS during high-risk weather, complete annual vegetation management and introduce worker protocols for dry conditions.
Changing grid control settings, such as disabling reclosing switches, can minimize wildfire ignition risks, with some utilities having remote capabilities while others needing manual intervention. Effective PSPS involves accurate weather prediction, municipal coordination, pre-PSPS customer communication and thorough infrastructure assessment before reenergization.
For most utilities, the interaction of vegetation and the grid is the primary cause of interruptions and a significant driver of wildfire risk, so annual vegetation trimming is vital. Proper training and tools for utility work can further diminish ignition risks from field operations.
Long-term planning strategies
Long-term wildfire risk identification hinges on understanding grid vulnerabilities. Comprehensive asset inspections, data analysis and wildfire spread modeling are essential.
Notably, risk isn't uniform across the grid; for instance, PG&E found 95% of their wildfire risk in just 22% of their distribution line miles. Enhancing data capture from asset inspections and failures, even those not causing interruptions, is vital. It’s also critical to understand the potential for wildfires to ignite and spread, and how that risk may increase due to climate change. Climate projections can be used to understand potential changes in factors such as precipitation, drought, fire weather conditions, and fuel moisture, to characterize future wildfire risk.
The ICF report, Resilient Power: How Utilities Can Prepare for Increasing Climate Risks, estimated an investment gap of approximately $100 billion to address wildfire risk to utility grids. Long-term mitigation involves grid hardening, minimizing PSPS impact and refining vegetation management.
Understanding risk locations is foundational; using sensors to monitor grid health aids in preemptive action. Grid hardening focuses on upgrading high-risk components, with higher-cost strategies like undergrounding used selectively. Investments can reduce PSPS frequency, scope and duration, with technologies like emergency generators and microgrids offering localized solutions. Enhanced vegetation management, using tools like LIDAR and machine learning, aligns efforts with risk profiles.
Lastly, a well-coordinated wildfire response process, involving trained teams, local collaborations and clear customer communication, is imperative for risk reduction.
Utilities must take action to proactively mitigate wildfire risk
Utilities have been thrust to the forefront of wildfire risk management due to the location of their assets. They must take proactive measures to mitigate this risk. Luckily, they don’t have to do it alone.
Federal programs such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Grid Resilience Innovation Partnership, or GRIP, include funding for grid resilience. We’ve seen the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and 39 other co-ops across the U.S. selected to negotiate contracts for nearly $100 million under GRIP. That funding can accelerate high-priority wildfire mitigation projects.
To prepare themselves for this kind of funding, utilities should first make a wildfire mitigation plan that assesses wildfire risks to inform their investments and collaborate with all community stakeholders who could potentially be impacted, especially vulnerable customers. Understandably, California is in the vanguard for developing wildfire mitigation plans, due not only to tragic experiences but to a regulatory requirement by the California Public Utilities Commission, to draft and update such plans annually. But some utilities, such as Seattle City Light, are ahead of the curve. As a municipal utility in Washington State, Seattle City Light currently has no requirement to develop and publish a wildfire mitigation plan but has been an active participant in the legislative discussions about wildfire mitigation requirements and has drafted and published its wildfire mitigation plan ahead of a state requirement to do so.
Of course, there is no one silver bullet approach to mitigating wildfire risk. A portfolio of actions will be needed. PSPS, even to large swaths of the grid, may not completely prevent wildfires, as shown on October 26, 2019, when PG&E implemented power shutoffs to as many as 3 million people, but the company’s power grid still caused up to five wildfires. A portfolio of actions that improve capabilities across the dimensions of risk assessment and situational awareness, grid hardening, operational response and community engagement will be necessary to most effectively reduce wildfire risk.
This portfolio of actions should include deploying tech solutions. These solutions can make a big difference with a relatively modest investment. Utilities in California are using Protective Equipment and Device Settings, also known as “fast trip” settings, which are advanced safety settings implemented by electric utilities on powerlines to reduce wildfire risk. Southern California Edison began its fast trip program in 2018 and saw a 54% reduction in ignitions between circuits with fast trip enabled versus circuits without it.
Managing wildfire risk for utilities involves an effective balance of short- and long-term strategic approaches. It also requires vigilance and adaptability in the face of evolving environmental conditions and regulatory requirements. Ultimately, utilities that proactively manage wildfire risks not only protect their assets but also safeguard the very communities they serve