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Michigan House energy work group aims to address power outages

And three other takeaways from the House Energy Committee’s hearing on mass outages in Michigan

At the end of a three and a half hour hearing, Rep. Helena Scott, chair of the House Energy Committee, said a work group will be convened to discuss Michigan’s chronic issues with long power outages. During the storms, more than a million Michigan homes lost power, some for several days. 

The committee met in response to power outages in February that left hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents without power for several days. Called in to testify were DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, and Katherine Peretick, a commissioner of the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates utility companies.

“We are planning a work group around this, because changes need to be made,” said Scott, D-Detroit.

The form this work group will take, and who will participate in it, was not immediately shared. Earlier Wednesday, the Senate Energy Committee announced a hearing of its own next Thursday with DTE, Consumers and regulators.

These are three other takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing.

1. Power restorations could take keystrokes, not days. But DTE is years away from automation.

DTE Energy president Trevor Lauer testified on the company’s behalf. Lauer said that DTE’s problem, more than outages themselves, is the length of duration once outages happen. He said utility companies have found a simpler way to restore power after outages, through automation.

“We need to automate our system,” Lauer told lawmakers. “There are devices that you can install in the field that will allow you to reroute power to restore customers’ power without ever rolling a crew or rolling up the truck out into the field. We've got an ambitious plan to move that forward in the next five to six years.”

Earlier in his testimony, Lauer noted that more than 4,000 linemen and other workers were in the field during the power failures from late February to early March. It was the largest emergency force DTE had ever assembled, he said.

Lauer indicated that some of those human resources could have been spared, and lengthy outage times reduced, with a flip of a switch. If DTE had that technology in place. Which it does not, and will not for years, per Lauer.

“This will not take away outages, but will dramatically reduce the duration of outages,” Lauer said.

2. Michigan’s shaky grid could imperil EV adoption.

Cathleen Russ of Royal Oak testified that she suffered back-to-back outages. She was without power for 10 of 14 days and lost two shopping trips worth of food.

“Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer wants Michigan to be the leader in electric vehicles. I would not accept an EV right now if you gave me one,” Russ testified. “Gov. Whitmer’s goals and the current state of DTE are clearly at odds.”

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, meanwhile, believes the state needs the charging resources for two million EVs by 2030.

But is Michigan’s grid up to the demand? Energy companies, which stand to benefit from increased billings, say yes.

In its 2020 EV-grid impact study, DTE claimed it could absorb 20% adoption of EVs “without major upgrades” on most circuits.

Russ said that if she had an electric vehicle during the ordeal, she would have had to call an Uber to get to work, adding to her expense.

3. DTE believes it can tree-trim its way to reliability. Lawmakers aren’t so sure.

“We have been and remain fierce advocates of tree-trimming,” Lauer testified, adding that 70% of outages owe to fallen tree limbs.

But DTE’s Feb. 10 rate case shows the limits of tree-trimming. A circuit in Detroit called Fairmount DC 1593 had its tree-trimming completed. Then it still suffered long power outages, with downed wires.

Starting later this year, and continuing through 2024, DTE will bury the power lines of Fairmount DC 1593. That pilot will shape the future of its undergrounding plan.

But lawmakers were wary of the tree-trimming narrative.

“I don’t want to walk away from this committee and for the takeaway to be that what we’re already doing is good enough, because I think our constituents feel that it’s not,” said Rep. Kevin Coleman, D-Westland.

Coleman asked Lauer to talk more about automation.

“Modern cities have the ability to reroute power on their electrical system by opening devices and closing devices that sit on utility poles,” Lauer explained, citing the Chicago grid. “By opening and closing devices you can reroute the power if there’s a damaged section. You can close the device and reroute the power back across the electrical section of 1,000 people instead of waiting for a crew to show up. You may isolate that outage down to 50 people and the other 950 people get power back literally in minutes because we have control room operators who can reroute that.”

“We were going to do it as we rebuild all the circuits,” Lauer added. “But now I’m asking the team to pull it all into a five-year window.”

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.