The threat of wildfires is on most people's minds as Australia suffers from devastating, uncontrollable fires in its southeastern region. While Australia's fires are alleged to be caused by natural occurrences, some, like the California wildfires of late 2019, are caused by electrical malfunctions and sparks
Engineers at Texas A&M University have found a solution for preventing these electricity-caused wildfires — and the subsequently caused electrical outages — with their diagnostic software called Distribution Fault Anticipation, or DFA. The software can interpret variations in the electrical current on utility circuits — usually caused by issues with the equipment — that can cause outages or spark fires.
A Texas A&M research team — spearheaded by B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and research professor Carl L. Benner — is behind the DFA software.
The technology has been tested at over a dozen utilities in Texas over the past six years, according to a news release, and now two Californian utility companies — Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — will be testing DFA. In 2018, a state law from the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring utilities to submit Wildfire Mitigation Plans, per the release.
Up next: The researchers are preparing to test the software in Australia and New Zealand.
DFA's specific algorithms are based on and refined through 15 years of research. Russell and Benner liken DFA to the diagnostic tools cars use, and, comparatively, the utilities industry is way behind the times.
"Utility systems operate today like my 1950s Chevy," Russell says in the release. "They have some fuses and breakers and things, but they really don't have anything diagnostic. They don't have that computer under the hood telling them what's about to go wrong."
B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the research at A&M. Photo via A&M
Normal wear and tear on electrical equipment is inevitable, but it's hard for inspectors to visually see this damage. Until this DFA software, utilities had no choice but to react to failures or outages, rather than put money into prevention. The software allows for these companies to better see what could potentially cause issues. And, now with the ability to factor in dry conditions and weather, the software can even predict potential wildfires.
"Power is being turned off with nothing known to be wrong with a given circuit," Russell says in the release. "Utilities need a crystal ball, something telling them which circuit is going to start a fire tomorrow because it is already unhealthy. We are kind of that crystal ball."
DFA has the potential to prevent outages and devastation caused by wildfires, and it also is a huge economic solution for utilities companies — especially the ones reeling from the recent fires in California.
Pacific Gas & Electric, which is testing nine DFA devices, is the state's largest utility company and recently filed for bankruptcy due to a near $100 billion required from settlements following recent fires. By comparison, a DFA device costs only $15,000, according to the release.
"DFA is a new tool, allowing utilities to transform their operating procedures to find and fix problems before catastrophic failures." Russell says in the release. "Utilities operators need real time situational awareness of the health of their circuits…..DFA does that."