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Managing Wildfire Risk with AI

As energy companies seek ways to safeguard utility infrastructure, Buzz Solutions is using emerging technologies in innovative ways to help keep fires snuffed

As demand for electricity continues to rise, energy companies are facing growing pressure to mitigate wildfire risks associated with aging utility infrastructure. Managing vegetation around utility infrastructure plays an increasingly important role in both keeping the lights on and keeping fires snuffed. Kaitlyn Albertoli, CEO and co-founder of Buzz Solutions, joins the Middle Market Growth Conversations podcast to talk about how her company is using emerging technology to address these challenges and why investors should keep an eye on the utility vegetation management space.

Albertoli was featured in our August edition of Next Target, in partnership with Grata. Read the full article here.

Listen to the full podcast above, and read a transcript of the conversation below:

Middle Market Growth: Welcome to the Middle Market Growth Conversations podcast. I’m Carolyn Vallejo, digital editor for ACG’s media group. Demand for electricity continues to rise, and energy companies are facing growing pressure to mitigate wildfire risks. Managing vegetation around utility infrastructure plays an increasingly prominent role in keeping the lights on and keeping fires snuffed. Here with me to discuss how her company Buzz Solutions is using emerging technology to safeguard utility infrastructure is CEO and co-founder Kaitlyn Albertoli. Welcome, Kaitlyn.

Kaitlyn Albertoli: Thank you so much for having me; I’m excited to be here.

MMG: We’re excited to have you. Let’s first talk a little bit about Buzz Solutions and how it deploys artificial intelligence in the utility vegetation management space.

KA: Absolutely. Buzz Solutions is an AI-powered analytics platform for visual infrastructure inspections, meaning we take in data from a variety of visual sources, whether that’s drones, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft or ground-based imagery, to analyze it in a fraction of a second, a very fast period of time, to provide insights specifically to infrastructure companies, but really specifically to power utilities, to tell them where and when their power equipment may fail during critical times. Our goal is to reduce wildfires, power outages and forced shut downs as a result of failed grid infrastructure.

MMG: Could you go a little bit deeper into some of the consequences of failing to adequately manage vegetation that surrounds this utility infrastructure?

KA: Absolutely. So, vegetation is a critical issue surrounding utility transmission towers or distribution poles. We often see that vegetation can be encroaching specifically on distribution poles which are the lower-voltage city lines, those lines you may see close to your home or as you’re driving throughout town. Those are called distribution lines. Transmission lines are the high voltage lines that are in highly remote areas and are carrying high-voltage power, typically from city to city or from place to place.

We see that vegetation can encroach on those towers or poles and can cause high risk of wildfires sparking. We see that, whether a tree falls into a line causing a downed line that can of course spark a wildfire or whether vegetation can be encroaching on let’s say a sparking issue, different components on the infrastructure may fail or may be at risk of sparking and when vegetation comes into contact with those pieces of equipment, that’s another way it can start a wildfire.

There are various issues that can spark a wildfire when you’re looking at grid components, but any sort of sparking issue or tree coming in contact with a line is definitely a way that wildfires can start, and unfortunately we’re seeing that as grid infrastructure continues to age there are higher rates of failure of components on the grid infrastructure and also we’re seeing that vegetation, especially in very dry climates or in highly vegetated areas, poses an even greater risk of starting a wildfire when it’s in close proximity to the grid infrastructure.

MMG: So as wildfire risk has unfortunately been in the headlines particularly earlier this year with the situation in Maui and the tragedy that unfolded there, we know that utilities are facing greater pressure to mitigate that risk. How can they use a combination of both technology and boots-on-the-ground vegetation management services to play a greater role in combatting wildfire risk?

Watch: Buzz Solutions’ Kaitlyn Albertoli on the Hybrid Approach to Wildfire Risk

KA: That’s a great question. Unfortunately, we have seen wildfires over the past several years, starting in California, and then we’ve seen it expand more broadly since then. Wildfires have been quite devastating to many different areas, and especially grid-sparked wildfires in recent years have been a particular issue. In order to talk about ways in which we can mitigate wildfires with technology, I think it’s important to talk about the ways in which utilities are typically trimming their trees. So, historically, utilities have been on a tree-trimming cycle, where every five to eight years they are responsible for going through all of their service territory and looking at where a tree is encroaching or vegetation is encroaching on their line and they’ll then trim that tree back so it poses less of a risk.

However, as I was mentioning earlier, where we have highly dry or highly vegetated areas where vegetation is growing even faster, both of those areas can pose even greater risk to the utility territory and they may require special attention more frequently than that every five to eight year scheduled tree trimming cycle. And so it requires more frequent care and may require more targeted inspections to either preemptively trim trees or more frequently monitor those areas. That compounded with failures of infrastructure where you may experience a downed line from a faulty piece of power equipment that comes in contact with dried vegetation, it of course poses an even greater risk and we are seeing that happen more and more frequently these days.

The use case of technology is great because as we are conducting more inspections of our lines, as we are collecting more data of weather patterns and vegetation growth, and then as we are collecting more inspection data of the infrastructure itself, we’re able to get better insights into where we need to target these tree trimming cycles and more frequent inspections. And as we’re able to closely monitor those areas so that they pose less risk, then we’re able to take more preemptive action as opposed to reactive action in the tree trimming process.

MMG: Being proactive is definitely something that we’re hearing a lot about and we’re hearing that utilities are going to have to adjust their vegetation management strategies. We’re also seeing that the threats they’re facing as a result of lackluster vegetation management are also evolving. Could you talk a little bit about those threats that they might be seeing in the future that could force utilities to further invest in vegetation management services and technologies?

KA: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think we see weather as a big one and weather threats are of course posing significant risk when you look at vegetation. In recent years, for example, we’ve seen many wildfires started from lightning. Lightning strikes have been a huge risk for wildfires especially on the west coast, but we’ve seen huge issues in Canada as well. I think it was two years ago, lightning posed a pretty big risk to a lot of wildfires sparking, and so how can we look at ways we can maintain our infrastructure itself so that continues to pose less of a risk?

One other piece is when we’re looking at high wind areas, how do high winds and vegetation collectively pose even greater risk? And as we’re looking at, as I was mentioning earlier, weather patterns and ways in which winds can cause an even greater risk hotspot or territory of your lines of infrastructure, we need to be more closely monitoring that.

And then another piece, too, is looking at storms: How do storms plus vegetation management in storm territories pose an even greater risk to our grid reliability and our grid resilience? We are certainly seeing that storms on the east coast are wreaking havoc unfortunately on utility infrastructures, so how are we looking at better monitoring for storms, maintaining our infrastructure prior to storms, preemptively trimming our trees so that they pose even less of a risk to some of these distribution poles, and how are we looking at the use of technology to help us get the insights we need and get them quickly so that we can restore power even faster, so that we can understand what that downed tree may have caused from a failure perspective on the infrastructure?

Those are just some of the weather-related threats that we’re seeing and how they pose risks; in different parts of the United States they of course have very different implications and challenges and so how are we taking a really good approach based off each geography throughout the U.S. to resolve those risks accordingly based off each of the geographic threats?

MMG: So the threats are evolving, the technology available to mitigate those risks is evolving. Let’s turn our attention though to Buzz Solutions. What does your growth trajectory look like and are there any emerging technologies that you might be exploring?

KA: We see at Buzz Solutions that AI is at the forefront of helping get the right insights from the data that’s being collected so that whether it’s a utility or a fire team, they may be able to conduct the proper maintenance and the proper protocol post-event or even prior to an event happening. Our goal is to be able to take in all different types of data collected from aerial or collected from ground to help analyze it in a seamless way so that we can give the proper prioritized insights and path to maintenance to those maintenance crews.

We’re working with drones and helicopter data, looking at the RGB data, then we’re also looking at things like thermal—how we can use thermal to track overheating in pieces of components to understand where thermal risks may exist on the grid infrastructure—and so using a tool like ours, we’re able to parse through hundreds of thousands and millions of image data points to then boil that down to a couple hundred images that a utility may need to look at of critical failures or of critical anomalies that are existing on that infrastructure. And then we are able to arm that utility team with a clear path of how to optimize their maintenance plan, ultimately helping them reduce the total number of critical risks on their infrastructure, bringing that number down, and then helping them monitor over time some of these moderate risks that they have across various parts of their infrastructure.

One of the things that we’re able to do is identify locations within a utility’s service territory that are called “hotspot areas” or a dense combination of anomalies that are existing in a particular area. We call those “hotspots,” or areas that pose the most risk to a utility. And those are some of the areas that I was mentioning earlier where a utility might want to send vegetation management crews to trim the trees more frequently, or it may be a location where a utility may want to send inspection crews to monitor what’s happening in that particular area. We see hotspots can change over time, you can have different hotspots based off different times of year and the different threats that exist based off different times of year for that particular area, or it could just be the most densely clustered area of anomalies that exist on that infrastructure and it may require further maintenance, upgrades of those pieces of equipment and grid modernization.

We’ve seen that that utility infrastructure space as a whole is desperately in need of more investment and it’s exciting to see that we’re starting to get more government funding that’s coming into this space.

MMG: As you’ve just illustrated, this is an evolving industry, demand is going up, technology is developing and evolving. So a question for the dealmakers here: Why is the utility vegetation management space one that M&A investors should be paying close attention to?

KA: That’s a great question. We see that historically there hasn’t been enough investment in the utility space and we see that the utility space is right now facing many different pressures. We’re seeing the pressures to electrify that are coming quite quickly, we’re seeing the onboarding of renewables that is also happening at accelerated rates. All of those things plus all of the aging infrastructure and the weather challenges that we’re facing across the U.S. right now—all of those different pieces and factors are putting immense stress, immense pressure and strain on our grid infrastructure.

Many of the pieces of equipment or components out in the field right now are well past their shelf life and they’re pieces of equipment that desperately need upgrading, modernization and replacement. But the utility industry is in need of significant investment to be able to achieve some of these goals for grid modernization and grid resilience. We’re also facing many pressures as it comes to grid reliability: How can we have even stronger grid reliability during all of these immense storm events and as we’re looking to transition seamlessly to renewables? So we need to bolster our grid reliability as well, and investing in technology, innovation and deployment of some of these new technologies at scale is critical at this point in time.

We’ve seen that that utility infrastructure space as a whole is desperately in need of more investment and it’s exciting to see that we’re starting to get more government funding that’s coming into this space, we’re starting to see more early stage investment that’s coming into this space, but as many of these technologies are looking to grow and expand, there’s a huge opportunity for investing in businesses that can quickly scale and have huge impact. So that’s what we’re excited about for the next several years in this industry, and I think there’s huge opportunities for investment there as well.

MMG: Well said. Kaitlyn, thank you so much for joining the podcast.

KA: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.


This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

GrowthTV and the Middle Market Growth Conversations podcast is produced by the Association for Corporate Growth. To hear more interviews with middle-market influencers, subscribe to the Middle Market Growth Conversations podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotify and Soundcloud.