From 2015 to 2018, California’s three largest utilities ignited more than 2,000 fires, incurring nine fines for electrical safety violations in the process. The most common mechanism for creating a fire is when energized power lines come in contact with vegetation, including trees. While vegetation management can help alleviate this, utilities providers and other stakeholders are looking to advanced technology for fire prevention. This season, San Diego Gas and Electric is employing a network of high definition cameras that powers an algorithm to shut down broken power lines before they can start a fire.

Confronted with longer and more intense wildfire seasons, utilities are looking to universities and the tech sector to provide some of the answers. Should they be looking to their counterparts abroad as well? 

In 2013, an electrical fire at a substation owned by Kenya Power Company shut down the Mombasa port for three days and caused local power outages. Electrical terminations and connection points at substations are particularly susceptible to fire, given the huge energy loads they bear. As faults emerge in the aging infrastructure, fire risk increases. 

Utility operators across Southern Africa are taking a proactive approach to reducing substation risk. When building new substations, electrical engineering staff are protecting the electrical infrastructure with automatic fire suppression systems. Polymer-based detection tubing installed inside electrical compartments detects fires and automatically activates the suppression system. As a result of the 2013 shutdown, the new substations that power the Mombasa port are all protected. The same systems prevented three different fires from damaging electrical equipment owned by Uganda’s electrical utility Umeme. 

Downed power lines and substation equipment failures are two different causes of fire that are both becoming more common as infrastructure ages. Unfortunately, upgrading electrical utilities infrastructure to prevent failures that cause wildfires will take time and a huge amount of resources. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the energy sector will need $177 billion in extra funding to keep pace with energy requirements over the next decade.

In the meantime, the protection of public safety is paramount. Safety technologies can help us get there, whether we find them in Silicon Valley or Africa’s port cities.

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