Utility companies must 'rethink the infrastructure' to help prevent power outages, commission says

Posted at 2:32 PM, Sep 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-03 18:28:31-04

(WXYZ) — The Michigan Public Service Commission says utility companies can no longer rely on historical data to prepare for these storms—-they say more tree trimming is a good start, but it’s also time to rethink the infrastructure.


"When the storm in July hit and that tree snapped off, took the power out to the sub for three days," said Dwight Pernia of Farmington Hills.

Pernia and his neighbors often find themselves in the red zone on DTE's outage map, especially after a big storm. His subdivision is located in Farmington Hills on Quakertown Lane.

"It's very sketchy, it comes and goes; we've been living here for 32 years, that's why I bought a generator. We lose power about 4 or 5 times a summer," he said.

Pernia says tree trimming is normally a response to power outages and not a preventative measure.

By investing $70 million, DTE is hoping to change that.

Vice President of Distribution Ryan Stowe says the money will be used to add 300 additional tree trimmers and 200 additional linemen.

"We are looking at some of those circuits now that have been hit by outages, and we are starting to pull some of those forward into the schedule so the areas that have really suffered here recently, we are going to make sure we get there and take care of the trimming," said Stowe.

The $70 million will come from the extra profits made during the pandemic. Because so many people were working from home, DTE saw usage patterns surge.
It's unclear whether a rate increase could be coming in the future as DTE and other companies consider massive infrastructure changes.

"The customers are baring a lot of the impact; the utilities have to bear the cost of rehabilitation and it's really the public service commission that's kind of in-between and has to figure out how to strike that balance, and that's a hard decision. There's not a clear best answer I don't think," said Seth Guikema, professor at the University of Michigan.

Guikema studies risk analysis and informed decision engineering. He says there are two approaches to improving electrical infrastructure problems: You can try to prevent outages by making equipment stronger, for example switching out wooden utility poles for steel, or using more innovative technology to achieve faster restoration.

"It's going to require, I think, a really careful, preferably independent, study that says, 'OK, let's look at this, figure out what are the options they have, how much do they cost and how much do they actually help,'" said Guikema.

As the state agency that oversees utility companies, the Michigan Public Service Commission is trying to explore every option.

The August storms produced some of the worst outages in DTE's 135-year history. MPSC is trying to figure out why.

"We are asking for a breakdown of the worst performing parts of the electrical distribution system, so frequency, duration, and what's already been done and where they are planning on doing more," said Katherine Peretick, MPSC commissioner.

Extreme weather patterns linked to global warming have utility companies re-imagining emergency preparedness.

Marilyn Batiste says her expensive generator is no longer going to waste.

"We were glad we had it because three days is quite a while not to have any electricity, so we did OK and we ran extension cords to our neighbors so they could hook up, too," said Batiste.

If you want to express your concerns or provide any input on system improvements going forward, you can do so on October 22 at the Public Service Commission's Technical Conference.