Technology developed by Texas A&M University engineers is being tested at two of California’s largest utility companies in an effort to reduce the number of wildfires caused by power lines.

The Distribution Fault Anticipation tool uses algorithms to detect the earliest stages of a problem so companies can fix lines before fires or power outages occur.

Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison have started to use the DFA in recent months. Implementing the new technology comes after both utilities were found responsible for some of the deadliest California wildfires in the past few years, according to the Associated Press. Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy in January due to potential liabilities of more than $30 billion stemming from wildfires, according to an A&M press release. 

DFA is the result of more than 20 years of research with a dozen utilities across the country.

DFA research team leader and distinguished professor of electrical engineering B. Don Russell said the original intention was to increase the reliability of utilities and protect the public from the dangers of downed wires. In 2012, the legislature funded a project to use the technology to reduce wildfires, he said. Seven utilities across Texas have used DFA for wildfire-related concerns, and recent applications in California mark the first time the technology has been used to reduce fires outside of Texas.

“There was no tool available to utilities until this tool that will diagnose the early stages of failure of devices so utility could go find and fix it before a catastrophic failure,” Russell said. “That’s the key.”

The computer-based device monitors electric circuits on a continuous basis and detects failures by interpreting variations in electrical currents, Russell said. Some of the most common problems it finds include arching on some of the millions of clamps, connectors and switches throughout a utility company’s system. Prior to DFA, Russell said these types of problems would not be identified until someone called to report an issue.

About 80 DFA units have been installed by Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, and Russell said two more California companies are also considering using the technology. Russell said Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison have two-year research contracts with A&M to run tests before deciding if they will install the product throughout more areas.

DFA hardware costs between $15,000 and $20,000 per circuit, which Russell said is “a very inexpensive application” since it can for the first time “provide utility with full situational awareness of the health of their circuits.” One circuit can serve several thousand people, he said. According to the Associated Press, DFA could cost Southern California Edison $22 million if utilized in its high-risk fire areas.

The research team is continuing to refine the algorithms to make them more sensitive, Russell said, and preparing to test DFA at utilities in Australia and New Zealand. Russell said there are “a large number” of utility companies that have expressed interest in testing DFA in their area but have not solidified contracts yet. Russell said he hopes DFA will be able to make a significant difference as it continues to be implemented in other areas.

“This is a transformational technology that will change the way utilities manage circuits, will dramatically improve reliability and make utility systems safer,” Russell said.

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