Powering the Mitten: Making southeast Michigan's electricity grid more resilient

Royal Oak resident Jenny Buchman has learned to be prepared for those days when the electricity goes out. 

"We've lived here for 17 years and in the last few years, it's really gotten worse," she says. "We expect it at least twice in the winter and twice in the summer.  This year has been even more often."

So far in 2014, Buchman says she and her family have experienced at least seven power outages or brownouts. 

"It just goes out randomly, not always because of a storm and not always because it's super-hot," she says. 

Buchman estimates she has spent at last $500 in the last year on replacing spoiled food and damaged equipment after the power goes out. It has also meant relying on neighbors to shut off appliances when brownouts occur when the Buchmans are not at home. 

"We have to find somebody in the neighborhood, tell them where the key is, and have them go shut our stuff off," she says. "We've also had to go buy a whole bunch of flashlights, batteries and candles. We've had to put out a lot more money because we know it's coming."

Buchman is not alone. According to data from the MPSC and utilities reported by Crains Detroit Business, 1.8 million customers have experienced outages in 2014 as of September; each year since 2011 has seen outages in the neighborhood of 2.3 million to 2.8 million customers.  

Challenges to the grid

"We have one of the more reliable electric systems in the country," says Trevor Lauer, Vice President for distribution operations at DTE Energy. "We benchmark against other utilities and we're very fortunate to have what we call top-quartile performance and reliability relative to other utilities. That said, for our customers, any interruption is an inconvenience and we recognize we want to get rid of those."

Several factors have increased the number of outages experienced by electricity customers in in recent years, according to Lauer.  A severe ice storm in December of 2013 left over 200,000 DTE customers without power for days. And over the past two summers, the number of high wind days increased due to severe storms.

"Our overhead infrastructure system is built to withstand 40 mile per hour winds," says Lauer. "Over the last two years during the summer, the number of days with 40 mile per hour-plus winds have almost doubled in our service territory."

The age of southeast Michigan's infrastructure is another factor driving power outages. 

"Detroit was one of the first big industrial cities, so in some areas we have one of the older utility systems," says Lauer. "Our system is much different than Charlotte, North Carolina which is a city that was built in 1970."

In December 2013, Governor Snyder announced his special message on energy and the environment. Reliability was one of the key pillars of that message, along with affordability and environmental protection. 

"The Governor talked about a 'no-regrets' energy policy," says Judy Palnau, media specialist with the Michigan Public Service Commission, "including improving electric reliability by reducing the average number of outages and their length and ensuring that Michigan never experiences massive outages due to a lack of supply."

The MPSC has responded to this directive by requiring all utilities to provide annual reliability reports, and by examining the response of DTE and Consumer's Energy to the 2013 ice storm. In a report released October 1, MPSC staff issued recommendations, including investment in reliability, improved vegetation management and increased reporting. The commission will review these and decide which measures to require utilities to implement.

A 2013 U.S. Department of Energy study examining the impact of climate change on the U.S. electricity sector states that "electricity transmission and distribution systems carry less current and operate less efficiently when ambient air temperatures are higher, and they may face increasing risks of physical damage from more intense and frequent storm events." The report identifies a range of adaptation measures that utilities should undertake to improve reliability and resiliency, such as increased redundancy, demand-side management and onsite storage.

"I think what we're seeing worldwide is a trend due to climate change that is causing weather events to be more extreme and more frequent," says Dave Bryant, director of technology at CTC Global, a company that develops and deploys technology to improve grid performance across the country. "When you have these more frequent events and things like super storms then we become a little bit more cognizant of the fact that our grid is aged and there are things that we need to do to improve our resilience and our ability to go in and repair things quickly."

Investing in resiliency

Whether or the outages are the result of climate change or something else, the solutions are clear, according to Lauer.

"I'm no expert in climate change. I'm an operating guy," says Lauer. "What I will say is there's really two things that I think we need to pay attention to. First, we need to make sure that our assets are healthy out in the field and we do the right investments."

That includes looking at the physical aspects of the grid: strength of utility poles, the type of wire used and which assets should be placed underground, he says.

"The second thing we need to do is we need to be really smart about our vegetation management program," says Lauer.

According to Lauer, about 60 percent of outages are caused by downed trees that are outside of the utility right-of-way, and therefore not subject to the utility's vegetation management program. The MPSC staff report recommends expanded vegetation management in 2015 to address out-of-right-of-way trees threatening distribution lines.

"We've increased capital investment by approximately $100 million in our distribution system over the past two years, and we're going to continue that level of investment for the foreseeable future," says Lauer.

That investment has two main focuses, says Lauer: reducing impact and improving information and communications,

"First, we're investing in operating points," says Lauer. "Having more operating points tends to make outages smaller so when something does happen, let's say a tree falls from 30 feet outside our line and takes out spans of wire, it limits the number of customers that would be affected by that outage. Think of them just as fuses or breakers in your home. The more opportunities you have to put breakers in your system, you have something to stop the outage from cascading. They also make it easier for our linemen to restore power more rapidly."

Sharing information is also a critical part of dealing with power outages, according to Lauer. 

"We are also investing in the ability to get more information back to our systems operations center to understand what happened with the outages so that we can better diagnose that from the field," says Lauer. 

Letting customers know what's happening is also important.

"Our linemen have been great about telling us what they think is wrong when they arrive at the customer site," says Lauer. "That's a big change from five or six years ago. We've gotten our linemen to understand this is really important to our customers. Once we have the information, we can intelligently communicate with customers."

A DTE Energy app  and an online outage map are main channels for communication, in addition to an old-fashioned hotline. The outage app, which was rolled out in 2011, is now the number one way customers communicate with DTE, according to Lauer.

For Buchman, it's about getting on with life.

"We have kids," she says.  "We have people that have to get up in the morning."
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