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The perfect storm: poor infrastructure and extreme weather are leaving Michigan vulnerable

Thunderstorm over Lake Michigan.
Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

This post was originally written July 8, 2021. It has been updated following the mass power outages on August 12, 2021.

While tropical storms are threatening the southern United States and extreme heat seriously impacted the Pacific Northwest, Michigan is getting its own wave of wild weather.

High winds and thunderstorms left over 800,000 without power in Michigan this week, a month after storms flooded Metro Detroit. 

With power outages and flooding becoming a regular problem, is the weather completely to blame?

Aging infrastructure

As climate change leads to more extreme weather events, Michigan's infrastructure is being challenged to keep up.

Michigan experienced 111 weather-related power outages between 2000 and 2019, the highest of any state. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state's infrastructure a D+ grade in its 2018 report, and the energy grid was given a C- grade.

The main issue with Michigan's energy infrastructure is its aging grid, which is controlled by private companies including DTE and Consumers Energy, as well as interruptions in the utilities' distribution systems.  

Other infrastructure issues, such as Detroit's combined sewer system and rising water levels, have contributed to the growing number of flooding events in recent years. In the case of the 2020 Midland flood, a dam failure forced thousands of Michiganders to evacuate their homes.

Changing climate

While overworked and aging infrastructure is partially to blame, there is another major factor at play: climate change.

From 2000 to 2019, weather-related power outages went up by 55% in the Midwest, and 67% nationwide. More frequent and worsening storms can further stress the energy grid, and cause more interruptions to energy distribution systems.

In Michigan, most power outages occur when lines are interrupted by falling trees, leading the state to require utilities to frequently trim trees near power lines.

Slow restoration time

Power outages themselves are not the only problem in this equation. Oftentimes, a simple downed tree leaves thousands of people without power for many hours.

As the Michigan Citizens' Utility Board (CUB) explained in a March 2020 report, Michigan "consistently ranks near the bottom of states, both nationally and in its region, in terms of the average time to restore power following an outage."

CUB called for more regulations holding utilities to higher standards, including tracking power outages in a database and being more transparent with consumers about the length of outages.

In the meantime, make sure you have enough flashlights and batteries.

Customers are being asked to report outages and downed power lines through DTE Energy’s mobile app or on its website.

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Paulette is a digital media reporter and producer for Michigan Public. She started as a newsroom intern at the station in 2014 and has taken on various roles in that time, including filling in as an on-air host.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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