The sun bears down on us as we stand on a ridgeline at Mary’s Peak—the highest mountain on Oregon’s coast range—looking down at one of the rights-of-way belonging to Consumers Power Inc.
Oregon is sweltering in a heat wave. The temperature will soon hit 90 degrees in a dense, heavily forested area that is like so many services areas of western electric co-ops: remote, rugged and difficult to traverse.
I am here with representatives of CPI, the Oregon Public Utilities Commission and a company called Brains4Drones that is featured in this month’s magazine. Using drones to patrol utility rights-of-way is not revolutionary, but we are testing a new technology that allows inspections using off-the-shelf drones.
Our drone crosses a steep ravine, soaring above towering fir trees to detect issues such as cracked transformers and encroaching vegetation. Soon, it is out of sight. Scanning the landscape, there is no doubt it would take a utility crew several hours to cover the same ground through extreme heat and on a rocky, perilous trail.
The growing threat of wildfires is causing electric co-ops to use different tools to protect the communities they serve. I am proud of the detailed wildfire plans each Oregon co-op filed with the state PUC in accordance with a law passed by the Oregon Legislature. There are plans to underground power lines, harden systems using fire-resistant poles and enhance vegetation management to address hazardous trees.
Technology also plays a role. The drone technology we’re analyzing is part of a U.S. Department of Energy research grant. CPI and Central Electric Cooperative are the only two utilities in the country selected to participate.
I hear the drone returning before I spot it on the horizon. The trip took only a few minutes. The data can be analyzed in the line truck, allowing the co-op to address potential issues quickly and efficiently.
Of course, technology does not entirely supplant the importance of on-the-ground inspections. Utility crews still need to occasionally trudge through rights-of-ways to make visual inspections and conduct repairs. Yet it is clear we’re entering a new phase of wildfire mitigation that will be safer and more efficient.
Based on this experience, it is also clear Oregon’s electric co-ops will lead the way in using every possible tool to mitigate catastrophic fires that are, unfortunately, becoming a way of life in the West.
Executive Director Ted Case