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Xcel hopes AI will help put a stop to wildfires in Colorado

Utility to pay for Pano AI’s camera systems on 1.5M acres across its territory Utility to pay for Pano AI’s camera systems on 1.5 million acres across its territory

By Judith Kohler

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Xcel Energy Colorado, which expects to spend about $180 million on wildfire prevention this year, is adding artificial intelligence to its arsenal to fight what has become a year-round battle.

Xcel is expanding its work with Pano AI, a San Francisco-based company that will install 21 camera systems by the end of the year on more than 1.5 million acres across the utility’s territory. The objective is to alert Xcel and first responders quickly when smoke is detected.

Pano uses artificial intelligence, or AI, to interpret images from its high-definition cameras that capture 360-degree views, adding data from satellite feeds and other sources to assess the weather and conditions on the ground. The company staffs a center 24/7 where people review information.

“By the end of 2023 we will have installed 21 cameras across the state, both on the Front Range and the Western Slope,” Xcel Energy Colorado President Robert Kenney said Tuesday.

“We understand that wildfires in particular pose a significant and evolving risk to our customers and our communities. Climate conditions continue to change rapidly throughout the western United States,” Kenney added.

Facing larger and more catastrophic wildfires driven by warmer temperatures and drier weather, firefighting agencies and governments around the world are looking to AI to help squelch fires early and reduce fire risks. Pano AI is working with local agencies in western Colorado and has deployed its technology in seven other states as well as in Canada and Australia.Xcel is expanding its pilot project with Pano that started in Boulder. The two made the announcement at an Arvada Fire Protection District station.

Pano works with fire agencies in areas where its technology is in use, said Arvind Satyam, the company’s cofounder and chief commercial officer.

“It’s a real new tool for us. We’ve been working with Pano for just a few weeks now, but one thing we’re really making strides on is connecting to our dispatch center,” said Steven Parker, fire marshal for the Arvada agency.

The site of the news conference, a suburban fire station, underscored that wildfire threats aren’t limited to the region’s foothills and mountains. Colorado’s most destructive wildfire tore through Louisville, Superior and parts of unincorporated Boulder County on Dec. 30, 2021. The Marshall fire killed two people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and did more than $2 billion damage to property in an area about 8 miles northeast of the fire station.

Winds of up to 90 mph and parched vegetation fueled the flames.

“For many years we have thought that wildfire was just a threat in forested areas, but that perspective has changed,” Parker said. “Now, we are seeing wildfires burn near and into highly populated areas.”

Kenney wouldn’t speculate about what kind of help Pano’s technology might have been during the Marshall fire. A 17-month investigation by Boulder County authorities said the fire started in two places: on the Twelve Tribes religious cult’s property when embers from an earlier fire reignited; and near part of Xcel’s electrical distribution system, where a power line became loose.

Investigators said they found no evidence that Twelve Tribes members intended to start a fire or that Xcel Energy was negligent.

The utility has disputed that its equipment started one of the fires that merged into one massive wildfire. Nearly 250 area residents, property owners and businesses, as well as more than 150 insurance companies, are suing Xcel Energy for damages and to recover money paid in settlements.

“It’s impossible to speculate on a hypothetical,” Kenney said about whether Pano AI’s system would have made a difference during the Marshall fire.

Going forward, Xcel expects the technology to help spot fires earlier and “direct the right resources with a level of precision much more quickly,” Kenney said.

Other tools in the utility’s firefighting toolbox are inspections of power lines and equipment using drones and helicopters, Kenney said. Inspectors use technology that creates three-dimensional maps of equipment to aid assessments.

Xcel’s wildfire mitigation program includes replacing equipment and clearing vegetation from lines.

The 21 cameras being installed by Pano AI will be placed in areas considered to be at high risk for wildfires. They are placed at high vantage points about 10 miles apart. Satyam said the cameras continuously rotate 360 degrees, creating a full panorama.

Xcel has a five-year contract with Pano AI. The utility is paying $50,000 per year per camera. Kenney said Xcel will recover the costs as it does with other infrastructure through electric rates, but is also pursuing federal funding.

 

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