Texas A&M: California Utility Expands Use Of Texas A&M Wildfire Prevention System

The threat of catastrophic wildfires has led California investor-owned utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to significantly expand its use of a tool developed at Texas A&M University that helps stop fires before they start.

The tool is called Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA). It’s a unique hardware and software system that detects circuit anomalies, notifying utility operators to address issues before they cause power outages or spark fires.

Two veteran PG&E engineers, Eric Schoenman and John Mead, highlighted the utility’s growing use of DFA in an article last month titled New Tools in the Fight to Reduce Wildfire Ignition. It was published in T&D World, a leading utility industry magazine.

In 2019, PG&E installed DFA on seven circuits to evaluate its effectiveness. Based on the results, the utility is adding DFA to 50 circuits in 2021 and anticipates adding 600 circuits over the next three years.

Priority will be given to circuits in the areas most vulnerable to wildfires. Nearly one-third of PG&E electric lines are in state-designated high fire-threat zones.

“DFA detects low-current events that conventional systems do not detect,” Schoenman and Mead wrote. “The fundamental key to addressing these phenomena is knowledge that they are occurring, knowledge that DFA can in many cases provide.”

The Texas A&M team of engineers that developed DFA is led by Distinguished Professor Dr. B. Don Russell and Research Professor Carl L. Benner, both of Texas A&M’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The team has worked closely with PG&E engineers on integrating DFA with the utility’s other equipment, including other types of risk reduction tools.

“We’re proud to make a positive difference in a region of the country that is so vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires,” Russell said.

The expansion at PG&E is the latest example of utilities turning to DFA. The system also is being used by Southern California Edison and a number of utilities in Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Mid-South Synergy Electric Co-op in Texas, which operates in small towns and rural areas southeast of College Station, is placing DFA on all of its circuits.

“It’s a great system,” General Manager Kerry Kelton said. “We have miles and miles of exposed feeder lines across pastures that are not easy to inspect directly. DFA gives us the intelligence we need to prevent many outages. It can help us every day.”

Electrical power outages commonly are caused by falling tree branches, errant animals or failures of devices such as clamps, switches, conductors and connectors.

The conditions can build up over weeks or months, impacting electrical currents in small ways before actual failures. DFA monitors currents and applies algorithms to detect and report abnormalities for investigation and repair.

Until now, utilities have had little choice but to wait and react to actual failures. Operators recognize that something better is needed, given the growing threat of wildfires.

“DFA gives operators real-time awareness of the health of their system,” Benner said. “While nothing will ever prevent all outages, DFA can increase reliability for a utility’s customers and reduce ignition risks.”