Study claims Michigan has more blackouts than most states. Not true, says DTE

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Bridge Magazine updated and clarified this story on March 24, 2017 when DTE Energy provided additional information and perspective the company said it was unable to provide before Bridge originally published the story on March 16. Read DTE’s full perspective in this guest column. Bridge clarifications to its original report are indicated in blue.)

By Monday, her fifth day without power, Devon Thomas had her routine down pat.

During the day, she’d go to the home of her mother, who had power. In the evening, she’d return to her dark, cold Chelsea home. She’d fire up a small generator and crank up the furnace. She’d read while the temperature slowly inched upward – the generator didn’t produce enough power to run the TV or even light many rooms while the furnace was running. Two and a half hours later, the temperature would approach 70 degrees. She’d turn off the generator and climb under the blankets.

“By morning, it’s 45 degrees in the house,” she said. Thomas would then start the process over – generator, furnace, 70 degrees, turn off the generator and head to her mother’s.

Thomas is an admittedly easy-going person. But five days of showering at the gym or at a relative’s house had taken its toll. She wanted her old routine back.

“I miss being home,” Thomas said. “I’m surprised how little I get done. I’ve lost focus.”

Thomas’ frustration is all too familiar to many in the state. Michigan residents suffer through more blackouts than almost any other Americans, partly because of our wind-swept weather. But one utility expert suggests that old power company equipment (that in some cases pre-date World War II), along with a lack of aggressive tree-trimming practices, also contribute to electrical outages.

According to one study Michigan ranks fourth nationally in the total number of power outages over the past six years. And state residents put up with more outages per capita than any of the other electricity-challenged states.

There were 192 reported power outages in Michigan in 2016, according to the Eaton Blackout Tracker Annual Report, putting Michigan ‒ which is 10th nationally in population ‒ behind only California, Texas and New York in the total reported number of outages.

Michigan also had the fourth-most power outages cumulatively from 2011 through 2016, according to Eaton. Most outages are short (the average is 35 minutes, according to Eaton, a power management company), and affect relatively small areas (3,244 residents on average).

But DTE Energy, which supplies electricity to much of southeastern Michigan, disputes Eaton’s conclusions. On March 24, DTE provided its own analysis of official utility power outage report data compiled by the United States Energy Information Administration, a federal government agency. According to DTE’s analysis, Michigan ranked 21st best nationally in power outage frequency per customer at 1.14 outages per year – slightly under the national average of 1.24.

Outages in Michigan

More than 1.1 million homes and businesses that lost power as a result of a massive wind storm March 8. Many residents were without power for days as crews worked to restore downed power lines. As of Wednesday morning, about 2,000 DTE customers were still in the dark.  

Michigan ranks among the worst states for number outages caused by weather and downed trees, according to the Eaton report, but also for outages caused by power equipment failure and utility company human error. (More positively, Michigan ranked 12th in the nation last year in another study for its progress in modernizing its grid technology.)  

According to online posts from DTE, wind gusts in excess of 60 miles per hour on March 8 caused extensive tree damage, resulting in more than 4,000 downed power lines. Due to unusually warm weather and significant rainfall this winter, the ground in affected areas was very soft and saturated, causing trees to uproot and fall onto DTE’s power lines and poles during periods of strong winds, resulting in widespread outages.

DTE called the storm the “largest weather event in DTE history.”

But a state utility official told Bridge that wind may not have been the only contributing factor. Sally Talberg, chairperson of the Michigan Public Service Commission, said Michigan utilities have a lot of aging equipment. “Some is 80 years old,” Talberg said. “It’s served us well, but it’s something that we need to be on schedule to replace.”

Surrounded by water, Michigan is buffeted by high winds and thunderstorms that knock trees and limbs across power lines.

Talberg said the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state, has urged utility companies to be more aggressive in their tree-trimming programs in areas close to power lines, an often contentious process pitting trimming crews against homeowners trying to protect their trees.

“We’ve really emphasized making sure they’re following through on trimming problem trees,” Talberg said. “(But) Michigan has a lot of trees outside the (utility company) right-of-ways,” limiting the trimming that can be done to protect power lines.

Officials from DTE declined to comment for this story, citing continued focus on restoring power to those who lost electricity during the recent storm. Consumers Energy released a statement that said in part, “We have an active forestry program that has spent $88 million in the last two years to clear trees away from power lines. We also have spent $520 million over the last five years to strengthen our electric system and plan to spend $750 million over the next five years.”

(Editor’s Note: DTE provided a far more detailed response only several days after the original publication of this report. In response to the original report, DTE analyzed US Energy Information Administration data as cited above. During the height of storm damage repair, DTE spokespersons said they were unaware of the Eaton report and did not refer Bridge to the US Energy Administration data. Michigan’s improved ranking under the EIA data comes from DTE’s analysis of the data and is not independently verified by Bridge.)

According to Public Service Commission data, Michigan homes suffer an average of one outage per year, with a total time without power under three hours.

As for Devon Thomas, she said she finally had power restored Tuesday night. “It (was) getting old,” Thomas said. “It’s mainly about inconvenience."

(Editor's Note: DTE Energy Foundation is a philanthropic supporter of Bridge Magazine’s parent company, The Center for Michigan. The Center and Bridge welcome philanthropic support but insist on editorial independence. No philanthropic funder has any role in Bridge editorial or coverage decisions)

About The Author

Ron French
Ron French

Ron French is Bridge senior writer, based in Lansing. He can be reached here.

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Comments

Kevin Grand
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 8:55am

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that when you run your utilities above ground, you run the risk of disruption of those utilities during inclement weather.

Or a better way of putting it: How many people have lost their water or natural gas service because of the wind or falling branches?

CBW
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 9:03am

I guess it's the price we pay to live surrounded by forests and lakes. I'm willing... although we did get a demand generator this year.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 9:08am

One thing that might help address the problem is for zoning officials to insist that henceforth any building construction have the power cables buried from the service lines along the street to the new structure. This would reduce risk and improve aesthetics.

Tim Summers
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 9:17am

Great, timely story Mr. French. I like the breakout ranking the top seven states with the highest per capita outages. Is that rate represent outages per resident last year?

David Zeman
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 6:33pm

Yes, outages per 100,000 residents. 

Steve P
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 9:22am

I think the answer is simple. DTE is beholden to its investors, and short term profits outweigh long-term reliability. The MPSC seems to have no teeth, and the penalties for massive outages and the cost of restoration, are far less than the investments required to prevent them. A $25 dollar credit for being without power for a week ? That barely covers a single day's worth of gas for a generator or one meal out because you have no ability to cook at home. Overtime for 1500 linemen for a week, maybe $6m. Assuming every single person claimed the credit, DTE are looking at a $1m more. Be generous, call it $10m. Thats still way cheaper than trimming trees, or burying circuits...and is barely more than they paid their CEO. Of course, we could always choose to get our electricity from someone else...oh wait...

Rodger Kershner
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 11:02am

The Public Service Commission seems to have no teeth because it has no teeth. The PSC's authority is limited by law to setting just and reasonable rates for the services provided by the utility and a few other lesser duties, though the Commission often tries to stretch that authority.

David Waymire
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 1:18pm

And it has no teeth because our Legislature has defanged it.

Sandi
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 9:28am

IMHO, they need to be more aggressive with burying the power lines, which would then be safe from falling trees. More coordination with MDOT, and other large construction projects may help defray some if the costs.

Rick
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 10:14am

The way things are structured in Michigan incentivize utilities to keep repairing fallen lines versus burying lines. I found this out when talking to a local township person who told me in response to my question why they hadn't buried a line next to a new bike path. He agreed it made sense (he'd contacted DTE and offered to bury the line during the path construction and they'd rebuffed his offer). DTE preferred to have the money to endlessly repair fallen lines.
DTE is a huge 'campaign contributor' to our legislature so their legislative agenda overrides logic and our hopes.

Rodger Kershner
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 10:57am

Actually, Rick, they are not incentivized to repair rather than replace. Expenses, like salaries and repair parts, are simply passed through to customers without markup. On the other hand, investment like for new lines, is reimbursed 100%, PLUS a return at rates that run at around 10% per annum.

Rick
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 8:13am

Then perhaps you can explain why DTE does so little burying of lines?

ken
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 10:35am

The term "outage" is not defined. Is it reasonable to report 929 outages in Michigan last year when Michigan had over a million outages just last week, or was this only one outage? The industry has developed metrics for defining reliability in terms of frequency and duration of outages for individual customers but none of those numbers were reported. The sources of data for the Eaton report were media reports and personal accounts. No data was apparently obtained from utilities and regulatory authorities, both state and federal. The report states that animals cause short circuits when they contact energized equipment. This is only true when the animal is in contact with conducting equipment with different electrical potentials. Birds in contact with only one conductor do not cause outages. The authors of the Eaton report may have a conflict of interest because Eaton manufactures electric power distribution equipment.

duane
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 11:50am

I wonder about the statistics, are they truly representative of the impact on the individual.

I have experienced the type of outage described in the article, and it was in convenient, and I would like to hear how Consumer's Power will prevent it from happening again, but I have also had power outages where it was only my neighborhood because a driver knocked down a pole. I can assure you that a few days without power is not the same as a few hours. I wonder if both are in those 929 outages.

Do the 929 outages count all outages the same, the 1 hour to several days, does it count the ones that involve a few residents the same as those for hundreds of thousands of residents, does it count the ones that involve the big power lines that power the grid the same as the ones that run down my street? Those distinctions could matter.

It can be convenient to use a single number when trying to make a point, but is that single number truly informative, does it only evoke emotions or does it properly frame the issue?
I wonder if the author was able to learn about the nature of the outages that are included in that number and if all of them impacted residents.

Is a per ca-pita comparison the right number or should it be residents impacted by each outage, or should it be the cause of outages, is the time of year and location of the outages relevant?

Jack
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 12:00pm

Yes, long outages are different, but we have had over 20 outages in one year of varying lengths. We've lost lots of food. We can no longer depend on our electric alarm clocks because our power might go out and we would be late for work. It happens that often. We get tired of resetting our clocks. And that's why that 900+ figure seems low to me if all outages are counted.

Deb Macon
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 1:07pm

Duane: The questions you raise are significant. Framing the data in terms of impact on consumers would be more meaningful, including lost wages, hotel costs, meals, lost food, etc. None of this accounts for the increased levels of stress and anxiety.

Jam
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 7:44pm

it is because it has been taken over by Republicans

Dave Maxwell
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 10:45am

Nonsense

larold
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 8:02pm

We also have more trees than most states. Detroit has more trees than any city in the world.

Willi
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 9:02pm

Their stock has skyrocketed the past few years. Profit before service to the customers

BattyBat
Thu, 03/16/2017 - 9:43pm

Let the state know you want no more increases in the name of upgrading ageing infrastructure. They already got a 4% increase in August and now they want another in 6 months. I wonder where all this money is going? Doesn't it concern you that we pay one of the highest or highest rate in the mid-west? Make them fix it and then lower rates once it is fixed. We can't afford utilities in Michigan.
Complain to:
Michigan Agency for Energy
P.O. Box 30221
Lansing, MI 48909
800-292-9555
http://www.michigan.gov/energy

Jack
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 12:02pm

What authority do they have?

John S.
Fri, 03/17/2017 - 12:38am

It's an observation (high outages/capita) without an obvious explanation, although trees and weather seem likely. With a monopoly, there's also x-inefficiency, arising when there's not a lot of competition. Last summer I asked DTE to inspect (and replace) an obviously frayed and potentially dangerous drop line. Response: Well, all the drop lines in this city are frayed. According to the inspector, it's no big deal. Was the inspector a sub-contractor or a DTE employee? Who knows? The incident reminds me of the dental monitor commercial. If DTE won't do the job, who do you complain to? There was no follow up phone call or survey by DTE to gauge customer satisfaction.

Mike Hardy
Sat, 03/18/2017 - 4:45pm

Since trees serve to moderate temperatures in urban areas. New projects need to consider underground last mile service whenever possible.

Mike Watza
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 11:07am

There is no secret.
Why did 1 million homes (most with multiple family members shivering inside) go dark a week ago, for most of a week?
We had a wind storm. Not a state wide 300mph tornado.
We don't suffer hurricanes. Yet rank behind those states that do.
We don't suffer earthquakes, yet rank behind states that do.
The Truth?
A majority of Michigan voters beguiled by 5th Avenue sales pitches, have consistently voted for representatives who routinely defer to the interests of the utility investors. And this truth applies to both major parties, so this is not a political endorsement of either major party.
This shows up in industry favorable laws and lack of aggressive regulatory review and enforcement.
All in return for the promise of "lower taxes, lower costs, more jobs and investment".
None of which has ever happened.
Not Ever.
Not on any level that matters to you and I.
As a result, utility infrastructure investment has been secondary to profit for decades and will continue to be for at least 2 more years.
As a result, we currently have a vast preponderance of very old above ground infrastructure and very little underground - which doesn't blow over in a breeze, or a tornado by the way. And the little under-grounding we do have, is hard fought for at the local community level only, in the face of stiff utility and state resistance.
We also pay more for this inferior electric product than any of our neighboring states.
This same truth applies to many other areas of our lives including the ever popular cable bills we pay, internet access that is ridiculously slow and overly expensive, disinvestment of our once fabulous Universities resulting in mammoth student cost increases, roads that are turning to gravel, bridges that are on the verge of collapse, aged pipelines, some of which have already failed at great loss to our beautiful state...
On and on.
So, what to do? If Michigan folks want change, it's easy. Vote for it. Vote for and insist upon different representation that puts you and I and our families and our neighbors and friends 1st.
Vote for folks who will represent all of us, and then see that they do that.
Start with this philosophy at the town level, then the state, then the federal level.
Or -
Keep staring into the light of the glitzy corporate funded campaigns, drinking the politically divisive "tea" and enjoy the decay.
We deserve exactly what and who we vote for.

Beaner
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 11:24am

How bout burying power lines??? Looks better and we wouldnt have all of the ugly misshapen trees from aggressive cutting programs. Guessing fewer outages over time would save money?

duane
Mon, 03/20/2017 - 1:36am

How easy do you think it is to bury 114,000 volt power lines?
Where do you put the transformers that step down the voltage to 110v? Do bury those in underground vaults?
I am sorry, but there may be some practical problems to your idea.

There is a difference in putting power lines underground in urban areas versus rural areas.
It seems the new residential developments are able to plan for putting the lines underground when they put in the sewers, water lines, gas lines, roads, etc. before even a holes has been dug for the first house, but when everything has been in place and people have been living there for years it becomes more difficult than simply saying do it.

Kathi Geukes
Sun, 03/19/2017 - 4:14pm

And it's all about Consumers and DTE not wanting any competition....therefore they don't have enough workers to fix the power when it does go out.....time to open this state up to competition!!!! Not only would it bring our rates down....there would be more help when it does go out!!!!

Lawrence Simon
Tue, 03/21/2017 - 10:30am

One thing I have noticed which has caused me and my neighborhood to be frequently without power is when the tree trimmers are on your neighborhood they will not listen to the people who live in that neighborhood which trees are a threat to come down. In 2013 the trimmers were in our neighborhood and myself and several neighbors begged them to take down a tree we knew was a threat, they refused, in November that tree fell and our neighborhood was without power for five days, I ended up spending money on a motel for part of those days, I think it would be great if DTE and Consumers actually listened to the people who pay the bills once in awhile.

Charles Buck
Sat, 03/25/2017 - 5:40pm

The crux of the issue is where DTE Energy CEO Gerry Anderson observes in his update, "However, the duration of the outages in Michigan, once they occur, is longer than the average - that is our challenge." This is a reference to the other major benchmark the utility industry uses to judge electric reliability: SAIDI, System Average Interruption Duration Index, the number of minutes it takes to restore power to the average customer who loses power. As DTE Energy admits itself in electric rate filings, it's SAIDI performance is among the bottom quartile in the country. This is true and worse for Consumers Energy. Indeed, SAIFI, the measure of the frequency of outages is not often mentioned in rate filings as opposed to SAIDI.

There is a bit of irony in this article lost on most. Were one to ply thro' the latest electric rate filing for DTE Energy, they would find that it is not the MPSC or its staff or the state attorney general's office or major business interests who are pushing DTE Energy to increase its spending on system reliability measures including tree trimming and equipment maintenance. Far from it. It is DTE Energy, and correspondingly Consumers Energy, who of late the past couple of years have proposed to spend greatly more on tree trimming, equipment replacement and similar measures meant to get them back on track with industry standards for such activities and sought significant budget increases for these programs thro' the electric rate increase process before the MPSC. Yet both utilities have met uniform opposition against increasing tree trimming and the MPSC has in fact approved trimming millions from their proposed tree trimming budgets among other programs meant as preventative measures to increase system reliability. Among the complaints from the state attorney general's office and MPSC staff is that neither DTE Energy nor Consumers Energy provides cost/benefit analysis to show that proposed increased spending on system reliability measures produces a measurable benefit, increased reliability, but without any agreed upon framework or method to conduct such an analysis the utilities cannot very well respond, and so they don't, and the MPSC cuts their budget while at the same time demanding that tree trimming now be done all the way to the ground under overhead power lines whereas before the trimming was done high up just around the wires. DTE Energy's objection is summed up nicely in the MPSC's latest order.

"DTE Electric instead takes exception to the PFD’s [administrative law judge's Proposal For Decision] implicit presumption that the Company’s requests for relief should be denied unless the Company overcomes some initial, unstated (and unlawful) hurdle of evidentiary weight. Instead, if DTE Electric supports its positions with substantial evidence, and there is no contrary evidence, then there is nothing for the Commission to weigh, and a decision by the Commission based on DTE Electric’s evidence would satisfy the applicable standard of appellate review."
http://efile.mpsc.state.mi.us/efile/docs/18014/0291.pdf

"Because it isolates system performance from weather variation, SAIDI excluding-MEDs [Major Event Days, i.e., storms] is a great way to measure the intrinsic condition of the overall electric system. Over the last ten years, DTEE’s customers have experienced steady erosion of electric system reliability into the fourth quartile in both all-weather and excluding-MED SAIDI measures. Figure 1 below clearly demonstrates a ten-year negative trend in SAIDI excluding-MEDs. This trend is expected to grow if the Company continues to address outages using primarily reactive processes instead of proactive approaches."
https://efile.mpsc.state.mi.us/efile/docs/18014/0247.pdf (p. 287-9)