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Experts consider grid strength, climate change resilience, in the wake of power outages in Michigan

DTE Energy crews work on repairing power lines on Orchard Lake Road after a storm in August. DTE said the storm knocked down more than 2,000 power lines. / File photo.
DTE Energy
DTE Energy crews work on repairing power lines on Orchard Lake Road after a storm in August. DTE said the storm knocked down more than 2,000 power lines. / File photo.

Experts around the state are considering climate change and the increasing frequency of severe weather events, and what that means for Michigan's aging infrastructure—including its power grid.

Severe storms swept through Michigan's Lower Peninsula last week, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without power. Utility companies like DTE and Consumers Energy were at times slow to restore power, with some Michiganders left for days without power.

Dan Scripps is the chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission and a former state lawmaker. He said an immediate solution that utility companies need to consider is staying up-to-date on tree trimming.

"People sort of scoff at tree trimming sometimes, but trees continue to be the number one source of outages, and really sort of improving our vegetation management practices was part of it," he said.

Scripps said tree trimming is often the first thing to be cut from utilities' budgets, because it involves a lot of operations and maintenance work where the companies don't earn a profit. However, he said, they benefit in the long run by helping to prevent outages.

"For the circuits they've already trimmed, we're seeing better performance: fewer outages, shorter duration on the outages. But it really is sort of playing catchup from a number of years of neglect that we're experiencing today," he said.

Charlotte Jameson is the director of the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan and a program director for the Michigan Environmental Council. She said these major weather events need to be taken into account when setting rates and when determining profit.

"For both DTE and Consumers, they're monopoly utilities, they're regulated by the state, and they're guaranteed a profit," she said. She added that utilities are motivated to pursue capital-intensive projects, saying, "Utilities are incentivized to invest tons of money into capital projects: replacing poles and wires, utility generation plants, those sorts of things. They're not incentivized to really look at maintenance of the grid."

She said she'd like to see these companies move to a performance-based system, where profit is tied to a specific set of metrics. Jameson also said that climate change needs to be an important consideration for any company planning for the future.

"We do need to make sure that our infrastructure is resilient and is able to withstand these worse, more extreme flooding and rainstorm events that we're going to continue to see in Michigan and in the Midwest, and a huge part of that is investing in the grid," she said. "Another side of that is really doubling down and maintaining our water infrastructure."

Scripps agreed with Jameson. He said when outages happen, utilities often look to the past to get context—but he thinks companies need to start bracing for a future shaped by the changing climate.

"Talking to a utility this week, the two largest storms in the company’s history were this one, and in 2017. In the last four or five years, their biggest storms in company history! And that’s the future I think we have got to be prepared for," he said. He added, "As we’re looking at the power grid to do more in terms of electrification and electric vehicles and transportation and other ways of addressing some of the climate challenges, we’ve got to make sure the grid is up to it. And the experiences of this past week show that we’ve got a ways to go."

Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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