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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)

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