In southeast Michigan, a little rain, then 180,000 power outages

It took just 1.13 inches of rain to knock out power in the DTE imprint

It didn’t take extreme wind speeds, ice, or thundersnow to knock out power for 180,000 homes and businesses in Southeast Michigan this week. Just a little bit of rain. Just 1.13 inches. Nothing close to the historic high for a July 26 in Detroit, which was 2.17 inches in 1878. Just a little bit of rain.

After mass power outages afflict DTE customers, the company often revs up its public relations efforts by announcing how many crews of linemen are out trying to fix the problem.

The linemen usually number in thousands, and sometimes they are brought in from other states. The announcements shift the focus from the executives who run the company to the workers who labor to restore power. When that DTE white work truck rolls down your street, the linemen are greeted as liberators.

What if the solutions to the problem were already known? What if the executives had made choices that lessened the possibility of power outages, and their duration?

The next time Michigan lawmakers haul DTE executives before House or Senate energy committees, they should ask those questions.

DTE has two solutions available to avoid days like these: Automation technology and putting power lines underground. Automation is easier and cheaper than undergrounding, and it provides many of the same benefits.

When DTE President Trevor Lauer spoke to Michigan lawmakers in March, after back-to-back power outages knocked out power for a million people. He spoke of automation technology, noting that it worked well in Chicago.

Say a tree hits a power line, and a neighborhood circuit loses power. With automation, it would take just a few keystrokes for customers on that circuit to get power from another circuit. This can be done remotely, and quickly.

The line would still need to be fixed, but it wouldn’t take thousands of employees working 16-hour days to restore power to most customers — the status quo right now, as seen in this DTE tweet from Thursday.

Undergrounding power lines would take a long time and cost a lot of money.

Though DTE has spent years on tree trimming, trees landing on power lines are still the root cause of every mass power outage.

When this happens, restoration times are measured in days, not hours. The emergencies that result seem to happen on the hottest and coldest days of the year. Michigan’s energy infrastructure, as built, does not work. All it takes is a little rain.

So yeah, thank a lineman when you see him. And know that it wasn’t Mother Nature who put linemen in this position, it was their bosses.

James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.