On behalf of Hitachi Energy and Craig Savage, Head of Network Performance and Management Systems, United Energy Australia

Increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. This is the alarming picture which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints in its latest report which has been described as a ‘code red’ for humanity. The impact of a warming planet affects every one of us and businesses need to urgently adapt to the consequences this brings.

The last few months alone have been yet another reality check of the impact of a changing climate: devastating floods, wildfires in Europe and northern California, record-breaking snowfall in Madrid, dust storms in China, and the deadly landfall of hurricane Ida in the United States. The human impact is severe along with the economic impact. US President Joe Biden indicated that extreme weather will cost his country $100 billion USD in 2021. Referred to as ‘black swan’ events in the IPCC report, they are often classified as one of the top threats to businesses, especially to those whose infrastructure is directly exposed to these kinds of natural disasters.

As a south-east Australian electricity distribution company with grid assets worth more than $4 billion AUD, we are one of these businesses. At United Energy, we have listed catastrophic wildfires as our number one business risk, taking them extremely seriously. So much so that we organize monthly wildfire meetings to stay on top of the situation at all times. Next to southern California and the south of France, south-east Australia is considered one of the world’s wildfire hotspots.

As United Energy’s Head of Network Performance and Management Systems and former Sustainability Manager, wildfires are personal to me.

A wildfire aftermath in New South Wales, Australia

Twelve years ago, on ‘Black Saturday’ as it is known to Australians, I witnessed Victoria’s emergency services battle another catastrophic wildfire from the heart of the state’s control center as the fires’ embers reached the suburbs of Melbourne.

In Victoria, the wildfire season is now seven days longer per year for the past ten years.

A government investigation into the causes of the 2009 wildfires concluded that five out of the 11 major fires which raged that February were sparked by power lines. This is unacceptable and exacerbates our commitment to reducing wildfire risks.

Technology to prevent wildfires

We were able to use the 2009 wildfires as a catalyst within United Energy for putting fire safety at the top of our agenda. Our grid’s resilience has benefited enormously from technical and digital changes we have made over the past years. For example, we have implemented a digital monitoring system for our network that alerts us of any irregularities on the power lines. Just shy of 80 percent of our network is overhead and being exposed to the outdoors means our assets have to withstand a variety of factors that are out of our control. One of them is wildlife interference. Sadly, animals like possums or birds can get caught in our overhead lines and present a fire hazard so this is being watched closely with the help of digitalization. Additionally, we have installed a partial discharge detecting tool on around 100 kilometers of our power lines in one of our highest fire risk areas in order to detect faults before they occur.

We have also been able to benefit from the successful rollout of smart meters across Victoria. Algorithms based on smart meter data are excellent at detecting wiring faults before they could trigger a fire which has allowed us to identify potential defects on the low-voltage network. Smart meters have been a very useful technological tool that has helped us render not only our network but also people’s homes more resilient. I believe they are an integral part of the intelligent energy system of the future.

Adapting designs

We have identified design constraints as one of the key triggers for fires. As a result, we have revised many of our design standards in collaboration with technology companies like Hitachi Energy.

For example, we have upgraded our network electronics to withstand temperatures of 40-50°C instead of 30-40°C as was common in many original designs.  We have also changed the way we lay underground cables, for example, as we have noticed that the movement from drier soil can damage our equipment more quickly. Our colleagues at a local gas utility have also complained about pipelines cracking more often due to drier soil as more frequent droughts are an increasing issue in our area.

More than half of fire starts on our networks are attributable to pole fires, so we have also adapted their designs. The new poles that we are installing now have been conceptualized with 2050 climate conditions in mind.

Following the Black Saturday wildfires, the state of Victoria pushed forward with the installation of Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiters (REFCLs) in order to reduce wildfire hazards from electricity networks. REFCLs are able to reduce fault current almost instantaneously and have shown to prevent power lines from starting fires. United Energy was the first Australian grid operator to successfully trial and install a REFCL system in 2009.

Hitachi Energy’s SPUs installed on overhead lines

Indeed, among potential wildfire causes that we have identified, there are thermal overloads of surge arresters installed on distribution overhead lines traversing wildfire prone areas such as forest grass and leaf litter. Hitachi Energy’s Spark Prevention Unit (SPU) provides a solution to this challenge, as it disconnects surge arresters from the distribution grid when thermally overloaded, preventing any arcing, sparking or emission of hot particles and thus significantly reducing the risk of igniting a fire.

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