By Cameryn Cass
Michigan utilities are struggling to provide reliable energy to customers as storms become more frequent and severe.
This past summer, Consumers Energy officials said they saw their sixth-worst storm ever for the number of people losing power. The company replaced 1,600 utility poles in its aftermath, said Joshua Paciorek, the West Michigan media relations specialist for the company.
That same storm on Aug. 10 ranked second-worst in DTE Energy history, leaving 700,000 customers powerless.
These extreme weather patterns will persist as the climate continues to warm from greenhouse gases linked to fossil fuels, scientists say.
“This has been on our radar for quite some time,” said Public Service Commissioner Tremaine Phillips. “We know that the impacts of climate change in terms of frequency and severity of weather events is only going to increase.”
A worried Public Service Commission recently held a conference to investigate how best to prepare for and withstand such conditions.
The state ranks around the national average — 1.3 interruptions per customer — in terms of outage frequencies, but ranks significantly worse for the time it takes utility companies to restore service once there is an outage.
Nationwide, the average minutes of outage per customer during bad weather is 194.5, said Douglas Jester, the managing partner at 5 Lakes Energy, a pro-clean energy consulting firm, and a speaker at the conference.
Michigan’s average is more than 350, he said.
DTE Energy recently announced a $7 billion investment, and Consumers Energy proposed a similar $5.4 billion package to improve power grid reliability and resiliency.
Their investments, made over five years, will ramp up tree trimming, replace aging poles with thicker ones and put sensors on them to efficiently pinpoint the precise location of an outage, Phillips said. The sensors will improve service restoration time.
The investment, which will come from consumer ratepayers, will hone the roadside distribution system, the greatest source of potential unreliability, Phillips said. Tree trimming is the best way to improve reliability in this area.
Officials are looking to expand funding support beyond consumers because more than just consumers benefit from reliable energy, Phillips said.
“Ensuring the reliability and resilience of a hospital or of a grocery store does not just benefit rate payers in those communities — that benefits the community at large,” he said.
Officials are looking to municipalities, the state and other sources for funding reliability efforts.
“It can’t just be ratepayers because the benefit is not borne just on ratepayers,” Phillips said.
It’s unclear how much the pending federal infrastructure bill will be put into distribution management efforts.
The challenge DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, the state’s largest utilities, faces stems from the vast area they serve.
A local, publicly owned utility can more quickly respond to outages, said Katie Abraham, the chief executive officer of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association, which represents 40 local public utilities.
“When the power goes out or there’s a storm in the area, our lineman and line crews live in the communities and know when it goes out, so they’re very quick to respond and restore it,” Abraham said.
There are several communities interested in switching to this model, but there’s usually an existing utility company that residents would have to buy out, making the transition costly, said Abraham.
Still, Ann Arbor is looking into the switch.
Both public and private utilities are evaluating the cost-effectiveness of moving lines underground. For densely populated communities frequently experiencing outages, this solution might be viable, Phillips said. But it doesn’t make sense for every area.
“There needs to be a middle ground between business as usual and undergrounding the entire system,” he said.
Since 1974, Michigan has required underground lines for all new distribution developments, so it already exists, Jester said. Moving existing overhead lines in developed areas underground gets expensive as utilities dig into sidewalks and buildings.
Even so, DTE has a pilot program underway to gauge the success of putting existing overhead lines underground.
One spur to improving service might be expanding who qualifies for a refund when the power goes out. Right now, if someone loses power during a storm, it can take up to five days without power to qualify for a refund, Jester said.
“We need to use the tools of economic regulation and provide economic incentives for more reliable distribution,” he said.
With more threatening storms to come, utilities and regulators are searching for ways to combat the challenges they represent.
“Climate change isn’t something that is in our distant or even near future — it’s happening now,” Phillips said. “We have to make our systems more resilient and adapt them to the realities of a changing climate.”