Mitigating Wildfires in a World of Climate Change

September 2022

The realities of climate change effects every region differently. The growth of severe wildfires has been an increasingly harsh challenge for electric utilities in many regions, both in terms of making sure that grid infrastructure and personnel aren’t affected by it, but also in avoiding any potential safety issue that grid infrastructure might cause. Simultaneously, this topic requires collaboration across disciplines from environmental science to meteorology and public health. PES plays a key role in aligning stakeholders and conducting research to better prepare the whole industry to face this task.

Avoiding wildfires requires careful research on topics including advanced forecasting capabilities to know when wildfires might occur, fault-prevention and ignition prevention, to avoid wildfires from occurring, as well as fire response and impact mitigation, to help electric utilities respond when they do occur. Each of these topics are being affected by the changing climate, as well as the different capabilities that stakeholders are developing.

For example, one key factor that determines the spread of fire is windspeed, which can be impacted by the increasing frequency and severity of disruptive events. As electric utilities are becoming more attuned to the role of weather in determining not just electrical load, but also the solar irradiance that affects generation, they are also becoming more engaged in forecasting other weather events. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed by the US Congress at the start of 2021, including funds for wildfire forecasting as part of a larger portfolio of investments in wildfire mitigation.

Especially in cases when wildfires might be expected to occur, fault-prevention and ignition prevention are crucial. This can include structural hardening approaches including undergrounding, to avoid the potential threat, or aggressive vegetation management, to avoid faults with vegetation that could be enflamed. Approaches to implement arc suppression are especially key. For these reasons, Working Group 45 of the Line Protection Subcommittee of the Power System Relaying and Control Committee is writing a white paper on protection methods to reduce wildfire risks due to transmission and distribution lines.

Wildfire mitigation is both very old and very new. In PES, we see how advanced technologies like batteries can be used by utilities in Australia, for example, to help reduce wildfire risk. High-powered computing can help improve our forecasts of what may happen without proper preparation. But much of what is needed is traditional work of electric utilities, including rigorous asset management, attentive vegetation management, and proactive undergrounding. Here is in PES we see through the conversations of academia and industry how theoretical and practical perspectives can make a more forward-thinking and effective industry.