Extreme wildfires spark need for more robust asset maintenance

Asset maintenance and grid resilience have never been more topical, as extreme weather events occur more frequently pushing the limits of utility preparedness.

One such example of extreme weather is the wildfires ocuring with greater frequency and intensity in California, US. As temperatures rise and vegetation dries out, assets must be monitored and maintained to ensure wildfires arent sparked or compounded.

Recently, according to news sources, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) reported to California Public Utilities Commission that their equipment may have been involved in the starting of the Dixie Fire in the Sierra Nevada.

A PG&E repairman stated that he saw blown fuses atop a pole, together with a tree leaning into the conductor and a fire at the base of that tree, hinting this may have been the site of ignition.

The Dixie Fire has grown to 29 square miles, largely in remote wilderness, and is among dozens burning in the area.

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Clearly a single, leaning tree can lead to millions of dollars in damage, lives lost and in the case of PG&E, the financial stress of bankruptcy.

Solar assets at risk

According to US renewable energy insurance specialist, GCube, the US solar industry must take transparent action to mitigate wildfire risk over the coming months or face the possibility of significant losses this summer.

GCube’s recent Hail or High Water: The rising scale of Extreme Weather and Natural Catastrophe losses in Renewable Energy report, analysing a decade of industry claims data, found approximately 50% of all claims for solar asset damage due to extreme weather were caused by wildfire.

GCube further estimates that wildfires alone have cost the solar industry tens of millions of dollars in losses over the course of the last decade.

Fraser McLachlan, CEO of GCube, said: “Obviously, solar projects need to be exposed to the elements in order to produce power, and while some may be robust to a greater or lesser extent in the face of most forms of extreme weather, they are all at high risk of damage during a wildfire event.

“As wildfires continue to grow in frequency and magnitude, exposing owners to much greater risk, better planning with regard to fire fighting and vegetation management must be taken into account.”

The risk of further significant damage to solar panels is increasing as wildfires grow in size and severity across the Western US, driven by high temperatures and drought.

According to GCube, solar owners in this climate who do not appropriately manage this evolving fire risk leave themselves and their assets vulnerable to considerably higher losses, both through component damage, compromised operations and in some cases, liability exposure to third parties.

Considering the current insufficient fire risk management and record high temperatures, as seen in Canada and the Northwest US, GCube is urging the solar industry to take the transforming nature of wildfires seriously.

McLachlan commented: “As we’ve seen in Texas earlier this year, the distributed nature of renewable energy has helped bolster the grid during catastrophes that would otherwise knock out individual power plants. For solar to continue to supply power to the Western US through these crises, when the community most needs it, the industry must demonstrate that proactive measures are taken to address wildfire risk over the coming months.”

Fire threat rising

Wildfires, in particular, are an imposing threat, particularly in the Western US. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), while wildfires are a natural part of the region’s landscape, the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year.

CAL FIRE states that climate change is considered a key driver of this trend, also giving rise to warmer spring and summer temperatures and reduced snowpack. This leads to intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.

It is clear that utilities will need to bolster their asset management and grid resilience strategies, as strategies that ensured preparedness in the past, may prove insufficient in the face of a changing climate and rising temperatures.