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Climate & Environmental Change

Towards a Resilient Power Grid

Philip Green

Chief Science Officer

May 29, 2024

Towards a Resilient Power Grid

Wildland fires have emerged as a formidable threat to Canadian electrical utility organizations, prompting a renewed focus on creating a more resilient power grid. While the endeavor to fortify the grid was already underway among utility managers, the unprecedented 2023 fire season served as a stark reminder of the changing climate and the imperative to prioritize strategic planning.

It is challenging to grasp the impact of the 18.2 million hectares of burned forest area. Paired with the scientific consensus predicting equally devastating, if not worse, fire seasons in the future, a resounding wake-up call has been sounded. Enhancing the resilience of communities, infrastructure, and critical services now stands atop the public and political agenda for the foreseeable future.
Where to Start

Immediate strides toward improved climate resilience can be made by electrical utilities through the enhancement of data used to assess the risk of wildland fires to their infrastructure. Upgrading data enables utility managers to proactively “harden the grid,” beginning with areas assessed to have the highest risk. It is crucial to note that mitigation planning encompasses not only potential asset damage but also the identification of locations where utility assets could ignite wildland fires, along with measures to prevent the spread from these locations.
It’s About the Data

The dynamic nature of wildland fire behavior, its intensity, and the escalating risk of large forest fires necessitate access to updated and accurate spatial information for utility managers. This information aids in identifying high-risk forest fuels adjacent to assets or across the fire-susceptible landscape. The recent destructive wildfires, such as those in 2023, originated from distant points and evolved into uncontrolled conflagrations driven by the presence and arrangement of wildfire-susceptible fuels, leading to electrical service disruptions in various parts of Canada, including Quebec.

aerial view of a pine forest burnt in a forest fire next to an oak forest

However, obtaining easy access to wildfire fuel information is no simple task, especially for large utility companies. The risk profile for utility assets spans vast linear corridors and associated forest areas, making information gathering complex. Historically, identifying hazardous forest fuel types relied on periodic forest inventories by provincial governments. Unfortunately, this method has its drawbacks, including varying timelines, different technologies, and challenges in accessing updated data.

Additionally, reliance on local forestry information introduces complexities due to difficulty in accessing real-time data reflecting annual changes across the landbase. The typical interval between re-inventory processes, exceeding ten to twenty years, contributes to low accuracy and inconsistent results. Generalized forest inventory data, originally intended for traditional forestry activities, is often repurposed for wildfire risk assessments but lacks the required detail.

To address these challenges, utility organizations now turn to spatial data sourced from high-cadence, high-quality satellite imagery. Automation algorithms and A.I. help delineate information, making it the gold standard for describing fire risk across large landscapes. Centralized, current, and easily accessible spatial information is now a prerequisite for utility organizations to conduct comprehensive risk assessments across various jurisdictions, providing essential insights for safeguarding assets against wildland fires.

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