Ensto provides solutions to help California electrical distribution networks prevent wildfires.
“Part of the greatest engineering achievement of the twentieth century” is how the United States’ National Academy of Engineering has referred to the US power grid. But what was once state-of-the-art is now in dire need of upgrades.
In its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the American infrastructure the grade of D+.
Scott Casler, Sales Director for Ensto Utility Networks for Ensto USA, explains that the system is simply old. “In Queens, New York, there are electrical cables dating back to 1893. Consider that the US was the world's second adapter of electricity for illumination after the UK. We have a very old infrastructure and, unlike Europe, have never experienced a massive land war to force its reconstruction.”
Much of the “newer” parts of America’s grid were built after World War II, making it at least 40 years old. One estimate claims the cost to update the grid at approximately five trillion dollars (4.5 trillion euros).
Recently, California wildfires have brought attention to the grid. The state’s 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. More than 8,000 fires burned an area over 750,000 hectares. As of May 2019, insurance claims related to this fire season reached 12 billion dollars. The human toll has been massive, as well. One fire, the Camp Fire, was the deadliest in state history, claiming the lives of 85 people.
California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, has been blamed for several deadly blazes. The utility, now undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, is the target of many lawsuits and a multibillion-dollar settlement is likely.
In light of this, Americans are re-thinking their grid, and utilities are now scrambling to update infrastructure. “In California there was an epiphany on everyone’s part,” says Ensto’s Casler. “The utilities, government, citizens, most scientists, and opinion leaders all understood fundamentally that we Americans were way behind the development curve.”
Of course, raking forests has become the most widely-known Finnish solution for preventing forest fires, even if it isn’t true. But more practical are Ensto Utility Network solutions — products, system designs, application notes, software integrated with hardware, plus system-wide support. And these, according to Casler, are unique on the US market.
"Unique" is not a word used lightly by native English speakers, but Casler says it’s accurate when describing Ensto's position in the US market. "We have products and systems in place, experience and understanding developed over decades that no other manufacturer in the world has. Anybody can make a surge arrestor, a termination for an overhead line, or a connector, but Ensto holds a depth of expertise in why things are designed the way they are. The whole Ensto culture is questioning why things are done the way they’re done."
San Diego Gas & Electric is one utility beginning to use Ensto solutions. SDG&E is a regulated public utility that supplies power to a population of 1.4 million business and residential accounts in the 4,100 square-mile (10,600 square kilometers) service area of San Diego and southern Orange counties.
"SDG&E wants to move into a medium-voltage covered conductor solution," says Casler. "We call it a FCCS, full covered conductor solution, and Ensto is the only one who has it." FCCS uses current-limiting devices – a unique approach against over voltage surges by combining surge arrestors, insulators, arcing horns together. It's a solution currently used in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia, but one that's alien to the US market.
Ensto's solution is made to prevent fires in dry climates, and it's also highly cost effective. "We’re going to reduce SDG&E's total operating costs by at least 35 percent for maintenance alone," says Casler.
Casler says his role is to explain how and why FCCS works and to get electrical- and mechanical engineers to have that "ah-hah moment." In June 2019, SDG&E toured Ensto plants in Finland and Estonia. "This is the largest group of people SDG&E has ever put together to visit a facility," says Casler. "They came to the north from a tropical paradise at their own expense."
In terms of square kilometers, California is roughly the size of Finland. But when it comes to population, California contains 50 million people to Finland's five million. Casler says talks are underway with another California utility that operates 5,500 miles of medium voltage lines.
And there is potential well beyond California. Casler speculates that if Ensto were able to capture even 10 percent of the American market, it would require multiplying the operations output of Porvoo plant.
“The Eurozone is highly competitive, standardized and price-driven,” says Casler. “In the search for markets to support higher profitability, and hence further product development, America is the logical answer.”
Unsurprisingly, Americans are not expert about Finland, but Casler says Finland is a good place of origin. “Our story is that if our products are tough enough for Lapland, then they’re tough enough for you. We see Nordic people fighting their way through a snowstorm to restore power to an overhead line. Finns are thought of as tough, self-reliant people who are highly diplomatic. That resonates well in the US.”
Casler says that Finland is more in the American news than might be expected. “President Niinistö and President Trump have somehow developed a relatively close personal relationship. There have been several state visits by the Finns over the last couple of years.”
He also notes that while raking the forests is funny, it means that Finland is in the news in the United States. “And that is something very positive.”
Text: Scott Diel