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New Technology May Prevent Wildfires Caused By Power Lines

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Power poles that burned in the Thomas Fire in December 2017 dangle above Highway 150. (Sharon McNary/LAist)
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Utility power equipment has been blamed for some of California's most destructive and deadly wildfires in recent memory, including the Thomas Fire and the Camp Fire.

But researchers at Texas A&M University have produced a tool that purports to detect power line problems before they cause an outage or spark a blaze.

"This is the first tool that will be available to utilities that is predictive of faults and diagnostic, and will allow them to potentially find and fix things before a catastrophic event happens," said Dr. B. Don Russell, an electrical engineering professor who participated in the research. "That is truly a transformational change in the way they're gonna do business."

The software, called Distribution Fault Anticipation, sits on a circuit and looks for signs that a system may be in the early stages of failure. It's being tested by Southern California Edison, which has the software running on about 60 of its 1,100 circuits in high-fire-risk zones.

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The technology costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per circuit, and is also being tested by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.