Environmental Leadership
May 10, 2023

How our powerline safety settings help reduce wildfire risk

Wildfire Mitigation team at Xcel Energy protects the grid and communities

As climate conditions have changed throughout the western United States, the traditional idea of a fire risk season has evolved into a year-round battle against rapidly changing, extreme weather conditions that can generate larger, more intense and faster moving wildfires. In response, many energy companies are making strategic investments and improvements to strengthen the power grid, build resilience and increase situational awareness to mitigate wildfire risks – Xcel Energy included. 
In Colorado, Xcel Energy is deploying new technology to assess risk, monitor conditions, manage our systems under different risk scenarios and plan ahead for many different situations. At the same time, we’re relying upon decades of experience operating a safe and reliable electric system in Colorado’s varied terrain and temperamental climate. 
Part of the work involves taking steps to “harden” the electric grid and other infrastructure, so if a wildfire starts, the grid is more reliable and resilient for customers. And since power lines and electrical equipment can occasionally ignite wildfires, Xcel Energy also has been taking steps for several years now to reduce the chances of this happening. 
“We recognize that wildfires pose a significant threat to our customers, communities and our land – and we are proactively taking steps to minimize risks associated with operating our system,” said Mark Nolan, director of Wildfire Program Execution. “Our Wildfire Mitigation team is working diligently to ensure that we partner with many others to protect against wildfires and the damage they cause.” 
The company first launched its Wildfire Mitigation Program in 2018. An initial cross-functional team worked to identify and quantify risks, as well as develop a plan to reduce risk. Team members include engineers and operations personnel from both Natural Gas and Electric operations, as well as Vegetation Management, Sourcing, Risk Management, Meteorology, Community Relations and others. 
The Wildfire Safety Settings effort is one important measure among many. The program is a tool the company uses to operate its system more conservatively in areas of high risk for wildfires. 
“In this program, we enable more sensitive and faster settings on protective powerline equipment when wildfire risk is elevated,” said Craig Holt, senior director of Grid Engineering. “In targeted areas, we have special protective equipment on the grid that isolates the affected line segment when it detects a significant issue, such as a tree branch contacting a powerline or lines galloping during high winds.” 
When standard protective settings are enabled, automated “reclosers” will test the powerline to see if the fault is still present. For example, after a branch touches a wire and then falls to the ground, the recloser will attempt to close and restore power. This technology reduces the number of outages customers experience and reduces the duration of many outages to a momentary flicker.
However, with Wildfire Safety Settings in place, when there’s a fault on the powerline, it stays de-energized until crews can patrol the area to ensure it’s safe to restore service. When wildfire risk is elevated because of high temperatures, dry conditions or high winds, this approach helps keep customers and communities safe. 
These Wildfire Safety Settings are in effect only when wildfire potential is high. That includes times of high fire danger, such as Red Flag Warnings or wildfire danger ratings of High, Very High or Extreme. These assessments are based on National Weather Service forecasts and other factors that could help fires start or spread. 
In 2021, Xcel Energy began testing these Wildfire Safety Settings on select powerlines where Wildfire Risk Zones were identified in mountain communities. Over the coming years, more areas will be added in a broader rollout effort. 
Initially, the company analyzed government data and its own risk models to determine various wildfire zones in Colorado. Now, each day an algorithm considers fire-danger risk levels and determines which protective equipment will have Wildfire Safety Settings enabled. 
“Our Wildfire Safety Settings effort reduces the risk of wildfire because speed, sensitivity and non-reclosing are key to reducing ignition risk of powerlines,” Holt said. “Keeping these powerlines off until crews can have a close look at the situation is the safest approach to handling these situations. 
“As this program expands, we expect the risk of wildfire caused by powerlines to continue to decrease, especially on days when that risk is highest,” Holt added. "And that will help better protect our customers and communities.” 
For more information on these safety settings, visit XcelEnergyWildfireMitigation.com. For questions, call 833-352-0087 or email info@XcelEnergyWildfireMitigation.com