While California burns, researchers at Texas A&M offer technology that could save the state


While California burns, researchers at Texas A&M offer technology that could save the state

This year was a tough one for those poor souls who live in California. Not only did wildfires rage across the state, but a utility fell into the habit of shutting off the power to large areas in hopes of not sparking the next conflagration. But then, lucky us, researchers at Texas A&M University may have developed a new technology that can put an end to this blunt approach to fire prevention.

At first blush, this may seem a bit fanciful. After all, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off the power because it’s impossible to know when certain electric equipment will fail and spark a new blaze. After being hit with lawsuits that pushed it into bankruptcy, PG&E wasn’t in the mood to take chances and was shutting off the power in elevated risk situations. If this left large swaths of the state in the dark, well that’s the price to pay for avoiding the next costly fire.

Or so many people thought. But then, our friends in Aggieland had a better idea. Researchers at A&M invented technology that can detect when there is deterioration in electric equipment. So with this technology, power companies could know in advance when equipment is breaking down and fix it before it sparks a fire. If successful, this technology would prevent wildfires and prevent power outages as well.

“Once it blows up we tend to get it offline really fast, but it’s already blown up. This is about prediction and prevention,” said Don Russell, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Texas A&M. He and research professor Carl Benner have been studying outages for years and created Distribution Fault Anticipation software. The software analyzes the electrical current on power lines to detect deteriorating conditions before something breaks. Believe it or not, computer-based diagnostic tools, long standard in cars, are new for utilities.

At one time, engineers thought that electrical grids failed suddenly because something, such as a tree falling in the wrong place, happened. But Russell and his team have shown that in fact, equipment deteriorates slowly, over weeks or months, before it finally breaks. By inventing software that can spot the deterioration, Russell and his team, at least in theory, are making it possible to get ahead of the problem before the not-so-proverbial fire starts.

After being tested by various power companies around the world, the software is ready for commercial use, Russell said. Several small utilities in Texas are installing the software now.

We don’t know if DFA is the answer. But it’s this kind of research that promises significant improvement to the electrical grid.

Fewer outages means fewer disruptions to daily life, safer traffic conditions and easier care for people. It may just mean being able to maintain the economy in a way that enables people to support their families, make plans about where and when to work and invest, and otherwise live life in the modern world. An outage stamps all of this out.

“Electric reliability” is one of the least exciting phrases in the English language. Researchers like those at A&M are working to keep it that way.


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