About Wildfires: Mark Quinlan



Fortnightly Magazine - June 2024

Wildfires, unfortunately, are increasingly becoming an issue for energy and utilities companies. Guggenheim Securities' Jim Schaefer and PG&E's Mark Quinlan shared wisdom on these difficult issues.


PUF's Steve Mitnick: Give an overview of what you do at PG&E.

Mark Quinlan: I have the privilege to lead the Wildfire, Emergency and Operations teams at PG&E and I'll do my best to break it down for you.

Starting with Wildfire, my team and I are responsible for PG&E's wildfire mitigation plan. What this means is everything we do in this space, filing of the plan, execution of the commitments associated with the plan — we have oversight and are accountable for. Examples include our asset-based work like undergrounding, system hardening, vegetation management, and system inspections. 

I also oversee our operational mitigations, including our Public Safety Power Shutoff and Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings programs. Our Wildfire Risk, Meteorology and Fire Science teams are a big part of this group.

Shifting to Emergency, my team and I responsible for our Emergency Preparedness & Response function for PG&E. This is an all-hazards preparation and response portfolio, which includes hazards like wildfires, earthquakes, severe storm events, cybersecurity events, pandemics; anything that can threaten the company. 

We have a Hazard Awareness and Warning Center that is constantly monitoring conditions and identifying anything that can threaten the company or the safety of our coworkers. We manage our business continuity plans, as well. I serve as one of our Incident Commanders in the Emergency Operations Center and lead all our Public Safety Power Shutoff events.

Last, but not least is Operations. We are responsible for the day-to-day operation of PG&E's transmission and distribution grids. This is accomplished through two Transmission Control Centers and three Distribution Control Centers, where all planned and emergency work that takes place on the system each day flows through. 

This includes equipment from five hundred kilovolt transmission lines down to the secondary service that serves a residential customer. The team also includes operations engineers and operational technology like SCADA, ADMS, and DERMS. Our wildfire operational mitigations are also all executed here.

PUF: PG&E's T&D system is vast, complex, and increasingly so because of distributed generation and all the changes coming.

Mark Quinlan: Yeah, it sure is, and it's massive. Nearly fifty percent of our seventy-thousand square-mile service territory is considered elevated or extreme wildfire danger, so we need to think differently with respect to how we operate the T&D systems.

As you mentioned, there are changing characteristics of the grid due to renewables, distributed energy resources, building electrification, new data center load, and electric vehicles. 

It would be difficult enough to operate the system with all these new challenges coming at us, but in California we also need to factor in threats like wildfires, storms, and earthquakes. It makes this an exciting time to be in the business but requires leadership that has to support breakthrough approaches and new ideas.

PUF: People want to hear about your journey. What are the best practices? You've become a proselytizer on this important subject.

Mark Quinlan: I appreciate that acknowledgment. I'm humbled by it. Like many others, I grew up in this industry, trying to keep the lights on, getting them back on if they were out, as safely and quickly as possible, and responding to emergencies.

Reliability and customer satisfaction have always been a priority, as is doing everything to have a good performing system. When I came to PG&E, the first couple of years were a learning experience on how to operate in California, compared to what I had learned in the Chicago area of Illinois.

A lot of the operating practices are the same across the nation, however my job fundamentally changed in 2017 with the emergence of wildfire in northern California, largely driven by extreme weather conditions.

We experienced multiple wildfires in our service territory from 2017 through 2022, some of which were tied to our equipment. Beginning in 2018, we established a Community Wildfire Safety Program that focused on standing up efforts like wildfire system inspections, vegetation management, and system hardening. 

In parallel, we began installing weather stations, wildfire cameras, and introduced our Public Safety Power Shutoff program. In the years that followed, we installed hundreds of sectionalizing devices on the transmission and distribution systems, to be able to better isolate sections of our systems during PSPS events.

Significant improvements to our meteorology models, coupled with this additional operating flexibility via the sectionalizing devices, resulted in our ability to become more granular when scoping and executing PSPS events. This ultimately meant de-energizing less customers, while adequately addressing the wildfire risk.

A dedicated effort to underground ten thousand miles of our highest risk circuits and implementation of our Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings program followed.

Fast forward to 2023, no fires of consequence and our overall ignition trends are way down compared to 2017 levels. PG&E had a nice year in 2023 and is positioned well for 2024. We're continuously improving but don't suggest we have all the answers. 

But what we do have are lessons learned to share with our peers who have wildfire risk in their service territory, or who will have it in the next five to ten years, as our environment continues to change and forces us to adapt to the conditions. 

The key for me is speed, to get there quickly, to create that margin of safety as quickly as possible. In retrospect, I would first start with implementing operational mitigations and then add the infrastructure improvements, inspections, and targeted vegetation management shortly thereafter. The reason for this is speed and cost. 

Operational mitigations can be put in place within a year or two, while the asset improvements take longer to execute over multiple years. The two approaches go hand in hand and in time as the system becomes more resilient, the need to rely on, and implement, operational mitigations will decrease.

The most-effective wildfire operational mitigations and cheapest to implement, are Enhanced Power Line Safety settings or fast trip settings, coupled with disabling automatic reclosing. You've got to have a PSPS program. These are the most effective tools in the toolbox.

These are both informed by meteorology capability, situational awareness with weather stations, and high-definition cameras. A lot of meteorology and fire science gives us the ability to see the threat coming, posture the system accordingly, and communicate effectively with stakeholders.

Communication with stakeholders is critical, both during an event, as well as throughout the season. State agencies, county agencies, public safety partners, cellular providers, critical infrastructure customers, and elected officials all need to be included in the communication plan, so we can all see this threat coming and can prepare to protect people.

PUF: Do you feel like there're still things to learn and seek to get better on?

Mark Quinlan: Absolutely. By our internal calculations, we have ninety-four percent of the wildfire risk mitigated through our programs. There's still six percent to go, and that is going to take work.

There are opportunities to improve and advance. A lot is contingent upon new technologies and capabilities, whether it's a part of the electric system, like protective equipment or devices, or with respect to situational awareness. 

The majority of our wildfire mitigation efforts, we refer to as layers of protection, and are designed to prevent ignition from happening. We're also looking at post-ignition layers of protection, effective mitigations that can be applied if an ignition still occurs. This is where technology can play a big role.

We've got over a thousand wildfire cameras in the State of California, and PG&E sponsors more than six hundred of them. They've all, since last year, had AI implemented. 

We're starting to see the positive impacts of AI with the ability for wildfire cameras to pick up a real fire, and not fog, not the marine layer coming in from the coast, not something that looks like fire to the human eye but isn't. The AI hits are picking this up well.

CAL FIRE is dispatching first responders to incidents off AI hits. That means CAL FIRE can catch these fires when they're small, execute initial attack, and knock these fires down. They're not relying on humans to pick up the phone and call 911. Given the effectiveness of the AI cameras, we plan to install more of them.

PUF: You have incredible innovation when it comes to wildfires.

Mark Quinlan: Yes. These are extraordinary times, so they require extraordinary thinking and partnerships. We've got standards, procedures, safety rules, and all these types of things that have been put in place over a long period of time due to safety events, lessons learned, and operating experience, as they are in most utilities.

But with the changing conditions in California and the associated wildfire risk, it requires us to operate our system completely differently based on where we are in the wildfire season. Innovative solutions are a must. 

An example of that for us was implementation of our Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings program, and then continued improvement and evolution of the program based on lessons learned. EPSS is our fast trip program, where we adjust the clearing speed of our protective devices to clear faults within a tenth of a second.

This program started as a pilot in 2021 on nearly two hundred of our highest risk distribution circuits and was so successful from an ignition reduction perspective, that we decided to expand it to over one thousand circuits that exist in, or are in close proximity to, our high-fire-risk areas.

EPSS is a combination of disabling automatic reclosing and applying fast tripping that was lab-tested at our internal research facility. We apply it on all our high-risk circuits and enable or disable the settings based on advanced meteorology data, namely wildfire fuel conditions, relative humidity levels, and wind speeds.

Each circuit has a custom settings plan based on the design of the circuit. We make the decision to put that plan into action each day based on the fire weather conditions. We've had much success with the program and are seeing ignition reductions in the neighborhood of seventy percent compared to 2017.

Even with that success, we noticed that EPSS was not detecting high-impedance faults, which are those faults that have low levels of fault current and look like load to the protective device. As such, we implemented Downed Conductor Detection or DCD, which uses sophisticated harmonic analysis to detect arcing that may be present during a high impedance fault. 

DCD provides immediate tripping when this occurs, and we believe we prevented seventeen ignitions in 2023 by enabling this additional layer of protection.

There are new sensor technologies that could help predict failures before they occur. They help us see at a more granular level of detail, the way our system operates. These sensors have the capability to detect anomalies and potential problems on the system.

Then folks can be dispatched to have a look at the equipment before it fails, instead of responding to an outage or failure. An outage or an equipment failure at the wrong time of year could be an ignition.

The challenge for utility operators is to figure out how to package different technologies and operating practices together to make it all work. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as we all have different system designs and different risk potential in our service territories. The key for me is sharing what is working and what isn't, collectively across our industry.

In addition, there is a lot of interest outside our industry in trying to solve the wildfire problem. One example is the XPRIZE Wildfire competition we are cosponsoring with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

The competition has two tracks. The first track is space-based recognition of wildfire ignitions within one minute across a massive landscape the size of states or countries, with ten minutes to accurately characterize all fires and report accurate data to the folks on the ground. 

The second track is autonomous wildfire response, where teams have ten minutes to autonomously detect and suppress a high-risk wildfire, while leaving decoy fires untouched. That is innovation.

PUF: Talk about the people internally and externally that you're trying to build this new foundation on.

Mark Quinlan: I'll start internally. I love my coworkers. Who doesn't love utility people? I'm starting year thirty-four in the business, and what we all do every day, the dedication, the commitment, you don't realize how much of a public servant you've become over your career.

We were trained to keep the lights on, not shut them off on purpose. But catastrophic wildfires changed all of that and forced us to think completely differently with respect to operating our transmission and distribution systems. The PSPS program was very difficult for us to get used to, from leadership out to the front line. 

It was a total shift in thinking and realization that we had to do something different to protect the public. Since 2018 when the program was created at PG&E, we've executed a total of twenty-three PSPS events successfully, with no catastrophic wildfires occurring during the high-risk periods. Each time we execute successfully, we gain more confidence in the program, as do our customers.

The Enhanced Power Line Safety Settings Program came into play in 2021 as a pilot. When we first implemented EPSS, it was challenging for our coworkers to understand, similar to the PSPS experience. With EPSS, instead of shutting off power intentionally, we're deliberately adjusting protective relays to operate incredibly fast to reduce the arc energy at a fault location with the intent to prevent ignitions. It's working very well.

Both programs have reliability impacts and required a shift in thinking by our coworkers. Now, wildfire safety is in the fabric of how we operate the system.

From an external perspective, in my view, it starts with having discussions about wildfire risk, starting with my peers at other utilities across the nation. Operating a T&D system in an environment with high wildfire risk is a dramatic change to what we're used to. It's completely different than how we were taught and it's tough on the gut to fully implement.

Also important to discuss is the wildfire risk in general across the nation. At one time, wildfire risk was considered to only be a west coast thing. Trust me when I tell you that it is not. It's very important to share the lessons learned and do everything we can to encourage utilities to our east to get prepared, to start looking at this risk. To take actions now and be proactive as possible.

PUF: You have a leader in your CEO Patti Poppe. Talk about the culture of PG&E.

Mark Quinlan: I've been at PG&E for ten years now, and have worked with several leadership teams, CEOs, boards, as we went through the hard times. Patti came in 2021. 

She's here to change the culture, to change hearts and minds. She's here to make it right and make it safe.

At PG&E, it's safer than it was yesterday, and it will be safer tomorrow than it is today, because of all the great work our coworkers are doing. We are going to keep pushing that objective.

Patti is big on breakthrough thinking and on the lean operating system. Breakthrough thinking is teaching us how to think differently and deliver extraordinary outcomes. The lean operating system shows us how to execute our plans with more predictability. Breakthrough thinking and the lean operating system are two of three components to our Performance Playbook. 

The third leg of the stool is our safety excellence management system, PSEMS, we call it. That's our entire safety, multi-faceted plan. That's our Performance Playbook. 

We run emergencies well. We can restore a big storm quickly. What we need to get better at is preventing emergencies and running the day-to-day, blue-sky business better based on learnings while in emergency mode. And the Performance Playbook is helping us do that.

That's what we're doing. I love it. We've seen some good results and have a lot of momentum. It's encouraging for those of us who have been around for a while, but we know we still have a lot of work to do. A continuous improvement mindset is front and center for all of us.


Wildfires articles at fortnightly.com:

  • Jim Schaefer, Guggenheim Securities Senior Managing Director, Head of Energy Investment Banking
  • Mark Quinlan, PG&E Senior VP of Wildfire, Emergency, and Operations