What if you could detect electrical problems before outages or wildfires occur? B. Don Russell wasn’t thinking about fires when he developed a power line detection tool. But fire prevention may be his creation’s biggest plus. Today, companies around the world use his device to save lives.
When the lights flicker, many people think a high-tech system should be able to locate the problem. However, the U.S. power grid wasn’t built in the computer era. Electric companies often don’t know they have a problem . . . until there is a problem.
Enter B. Don Russell. He’s an electrical engineer at Texas A&M University. Fifteen years ago, he and his research team developed a diagnostic tool. “Distribution Fault Anticipation” (DFA) detects changes in electric currents caused by poor conditions or faulty equipment. The team’s focus was on keeping power systems safe and lights on for Texas residents.
For years, Russell and his partners didn’t realize their device had fire prevention possibilities. Russell merely hoped to prevent someone from being electrocuted by a downed wire.
But after several devasting fires in 2011, Russell’s team realized DFA could detect differences in how power lines and transformers behave when a problem was occurring—or about to occur. A Texas A&M website compares this know-how to “an auto mechanic who can hear a problem in an old engine and know exactly what is causing it.”
So now, when lightning causes damage or a branch weakens a line, DFA lets utilities know. DFA technology can’t yet pinpoint exact problem locations. But it can help dispatch crews get closer to the source of damaged equipment. That saves time patrolling miles of power lines.
DFA isn’t cheap. The technology could cost a utility $22 million, not including installation, operation, and maintenance. But that’s only a fraction of what a wildfire sparked by a utility could cost, Russell says.
Pacific Gas and Electric and SoCal Edison in California are testing DFA. One faces $20 billion in losses from wildfires in 2017 and 2018. The other will pay $360 million for deadly blazes sparked by its equipment during the last two years.
“The assumption the utility has to make today is, ‘It’s healthy until we get a call that says somebody’s lights (are) out,’” Russell says. “By then the fire’s started or the outage has happened.” DFA may just change that for the better.