Mitigating the risk of powerline bushfires

Founder of US vegetation management software company Clearion, Christopher Kelly, talks to Energy Source and Distribution about how Geographic Information System (GIS) technology can help mitigate a chief cause of Australian bushfires: powerline damage.

The risk of powerlines sparking major bushfires can be significantly reduced with today’s mapping technology, according to Mr Kelly, who visited Australia in February. His visit came amidst growing scrutiny regarding the bushfire risk posed by powerline failure, with details emerging it was the likely cause of January’s Perth Hill crisis, which destroyed more than 50 homes.

GIS technology is already used to manage vegetation by some of North America’s biggest utilities, which regularly deal with diverse weather patterns that can impact networks, including cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons. Now, Mr Kelly is working in close partnership with Australian GIS leader Esri Australia to bring the new approach to the local market.

Mr Kelly says some of the measures currently being mooted to address the issue of wayward vegetation, such as disconnecting power supply during a fire, presented obvious issues for critical customers relying on access to electricity. What’s more, it failed to get to the core of the problem.

“Completely cutting power to communities at risk of bushfires brings its own dangers, and other measures, such as large scale vegetation cutbacks and the widespread insulation of powerlines, are not affordable,” he says.

“What is needed is an end-to-end approach to vegetation management, which is what GIS technology can provide.”

By “end-to-end”, Mr Kelly is referring to an integrated approach to vegetation management that can manage all phases of a utility line-clearing program, including estimating, planning, dispatching, tracking, auditing and reporting. The system must maintain data across time and territory. What’s more, data must flow seamlessly between numerous personnel performing a variety of tasks in both the office and the field.

The technology essentially enables utilities to overlay assets and environmental maps with information about inspections, maintenance history, weather patterns and vegetation characteristics.

“This allows utilities to develop a risk profile of their networks and focus their vegetation control on the areas that are in the greatest danger of bushfires,” Mr Kelly said.

“In vegetation management, knowledge of ‘where’ is critical. If you can’t get the trimming crews to the right location, then the best work prioritisation process will fail to reduce fire risk.”

While the technology was conceived in the US, Mr Kelly says the vast differences in North America’s weather, environment, vegetation types, contracting methods and regulatory requirements are not dissimilar to that faced by Australian utilities.

“One of our largest customers in the US is a utility with more than 100,000 miles (160,000km) on their distribution system spanning nearly 500 miles (804km) across a very large service area. Conditions there are not unlike Western Australia in many ways, including dry, hot weather much of the time, with severe storms and local weather events occurring on a regular basis,” he says.

Esri Australia GIS in Utilities expert Harry Kestin says the technology delivers an interactive, digital dashboard, which provides greater levels of insight and situational awareness.

“While a current vegetation management cycle might dictate trees near powerlines in a certain area should be cut back every three years, other uncontrollable external factors may come into play, such as drought or flood,” Mr Kestin says.

“GIS technology enables utilities to analyse these scenarios and delay or bring forward the cycle, which results in a safer environment, reduces over- or under-servicing and delivers more efficient resource use.”

With a number of different parties involved in vegetation management, not always with legal obligations, Mr Kestin says the end-to-end system also ensures no “holes” appear in the process.

“The recent bushfires in Perth is an interesting case, as allegedly, it was started on a landowners property in Western Australia. In WA, there is a statutory obligation for landowners to trim, but no obligation on the utility or regulator to inspect, as there is in other states,” he says.

“So if you look at the end-to-end process, there is a missing piece here; the need to check landowners have done what they are supposed to do, and give them notification if they need to do it. GIS technology, complimented by the Clearion system provides assistance to do this as well.”

Mr Kestin says the system could also be accessed by mobile devices, which strengthened the communication chain between vegetation management strategists and workers in the field.

“Because everyone is connected to a centralised system, they are working from the same playbook,” he says.

“This strengthens the system’s integrity, removing the chance of information being lost between the field and office or vice versa, and ensuring the work is being done in the right locations.”

Analysing the technology’s affordability is, for obvious reasons, difficult to answer as it depends on the size of the utility. Nonetheless, Mr Kestin says the Australian utilities he has worked with are confident they can achieve pay back in well under a year.

“Return on investment (ROI) could be significantly under a year. In my experience working with utilities, this probably has the best potential ROI of anything that they’ve done, in an area that hasn’t achieved optimisation,” he says.

“We are working with one utility at the moment in Australia that we believe can achieve a 15 per cent drop in administrative overhead and reduced data errors through the software. What’s more, they can save another 15 per cent with, firstly, continuous improvement in their program based on the fact they are collecting detailed information and reviewing it every time and, secondly, with their improved ability to negotiate with contractors and subcontractors.

“There is definitely a recent recognition of the risk of inadequate vegetation management and extremely high year-on-year costs of managing that program. We’re definitely seeing a renewed interest in making that more efficient, more cost effective, more managed, and having a platform to continuously improve that program.”