COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- We rarely get to see how wildfires start, but we’ve often seen how they end –– blackened earth, ruined properties, and, in the worst cases, death.
Since 2010, the Texas A&M Forest Service says electric lines, or sparks emanating from them, are responsible for 3,760 forest fires that burned through 579,714 acres of often-dry Texas land. Propelled by the wind, the fanned flames often come in to view long after a spark finds its way to a piece of dried-out vegetation.
"Power line fires typically fall into the top five causes of fire per year,” says Don Galloway with the Texas A&M Forest Service.
The worst specimen was the 2011 Bastrop Complex Fire in Central Texas, which blackened 34,000 acres, incinerated more than 1,600 homes and killed two people. Investigators blamed windblown trees that breached a live wire.
It’s a hazard they have seen time and again, says Galloway, who laments, "It's not something, though, that we can go out and do a lot with".
But researchers at Texas A&M University are now making a bold claim about wildfires touched off by electricity.
"We can prevent many of those fires," insists Dr. B. Don Russell, who, alongside his team, has designed a nondescript silver box that they say might just be a silver bullet.
"We have a number of patents that are pending,” he said.
Russell explains the device, which is installed at a substation, constantly scans miles of power lines and can detect a badly damaged line in time to quickly de-energize it.
Moreover, Russell says the gadget can identify minute flaws in a line and flag it for repair early on.
"We're able to detect the failure of this device days, weeks, even longer in advance of when it blows up, or the line separates and falls, or when you have melted material come out and start a fire,” he said.
But Dr. Russell estimates it would cost utilities millions apiece to outfit the electric network. He acknowledges power companies have been reluctant, especially since there’s no proof yet that the concept can work on a scale as grand as the Texas electric grid.
"People need to be convinced that it's worth the money,” he said.
The equipment is now in place on a limited, trial basis in substations across the state, including at some Oncor sites in Dallas.
“It’s giving us good information … by allowing us to investigate issues and sometimes initiate repairs before customers have even been affected,” said Oncor spokeswoman Catherine Cuellar.
But Cuellar says more testing, and tweaking, is needed.
“The full potential has not yet been realized because the maturity is not quite there yet…we’ve already been able to give feedback and see improvements and enhancements,” she said.
As such, the technology holds great promise, but utility companies will require more field testing before they're ready to invest in more of these silver boxes.