Stamping out wildfires requires invisible infrastructure

Wildfires are growing in intensity and frequency, escalating the threat posed to Americans — and the critical utility infrastructure we rely on. According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, weather and climate disasters cost the U.S. $91 billion in 2018.

In the last 10 years, my home state of California has been devastated by 11 of the largest wildfires in recent history, with eight as the most destructive. The good news is that new technologies are being developed every day to prevent and quickly spot wildfires caused by utility and communication infrastructure. However, there is a lack of adequate funding for infrastructure needed to be extended in high fire risk utility service areas to deploy these advanced technologies that can save lives and property.

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Existing advanced technologies can prevent wildfires and harden utility systems. Some of these tools were recently showcased at California’s first Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit. These solutions will increase situational awareness, predict high fire risk and take preventive actions to avert fire disasters. What they don’t have in most jurisdictions, however, is adequate funding. Ideally, this should be a combined private-public sector responsibility — but will require silos to be broken down to pool funding between utilities, first responders, and local, state and federal agencies who bear a shared responsibility to prevent fires.

The technology is clearly available, but unless industry and government invest in it, our critical infrastructure and our residents won’t benefit. An example of successful implementation of technology is San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), which has developed capabilities to sense and then cut off the flow of electricity to a broken powerline before it hits the ground.

This development is revolutionary because it prevents fires before they begin, rather than just detecting them after ignition. SDGE has also hardened the physical infrastructure of its system to be more resilient to high winds and storms. In partnership with nearby universities like UC San Diego and county fire authorities, the utility has also deployed a network of video cameras and sensors that measure weather and moisture, which it then uses to predict high fire risk times and spot fires quickly.

For these technologies to effectively operate in other communities, they require what I call “invisible infrastructure.” By this, I mean adequate wireless radio spectrum and robust high-speed private communications networks that operate over vast utility service areas. These secure wireless networks enable connectivity of fire monitoring cameras, weather sensors and other control devices that can shut off power to a falling power line.

These licensed networks feature inherent security and resiliency that are enabled by broadband spectrum. The importance of separate and secure communications networks has been widely recognized by industry and government, and the National Infrastructure Advisory Council issued a report on threats to critical infrastructure and the need for secure communications networks.  

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently taken a major step with a proposed rule to repurpose the 900 MHz spectrum band for uses like those discussed above by utility and enterprise private networks. This broadband spectrum is the ideal workhorse of the invisible infrastructure underlying utility applications of all types, not only for protection of critical infrastructure from hacking, but also for smart grid systems and other 21st century applications.

While utility ratepayers are one source of funding, other funding sources for fire cameras, weather sensors and the underlying communications systems could come from fire authorities, emergency services agencies, forest services as well as cap and trade funds related to climate change initiatives.

Given the rash of wildfires, new utility wildfire mitigation plans and funding for advanced technologies and communications systems must be handled more quickly by public utility commissions (PUCs). Utilities must understand the proof points they need to outline in their proposals to PUCs for regulatory approval of such large infrastructure projects. PUCs must understand the benefits and costs of advanced technologies proposed in wildfire mitigation.

The federal government should also continue in its leadership and guidance in increasing the reliability of our energy infrastructure. Agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Department of Energy must further emphasize reliability and grid modernization, decreasing barriers to market entry and deployment for technologies that will mitigate risk in our nation’s utility infrastructure. For example, while FERC reviews different policies that address incentives for infrastructure projects, it should continue to recognize companies that place emphasis on upgrading their infrastructure assets. 

As a former state and federal regulator, I have seen examples of how strong, focused partnerships between government and industry can deliver urgently needed results. It’s time for industry and government to roll up their sleeves to fund and deploy technology so that our nation’s critical infrastructure is as secure and resilient as it can be. If we fail to act, we will get burned.

Rachelle Chong is a former California PUC and FCC Commissioner. Chong is currently a California lawyer specializing in communications, energy and transportation.