After a windstorm in July, we’d been without power for nearly 70 hours when my wife got a text from a neighbor while we were downtown: Crews were working on the lines in our area. We drove home and saw a dozen pickup and bucket trucks lining the streets of our Fourth Ward neighborhood and about two dozen guys having lunch. But we still had no power.
They all left after lunch except two guys and two trucks. My wife and I had just settled down to read when our lights came on. I walked over to talk to the linemen before they left.
A grizzled guy dressed in bright yellow and orange had come in from Indianapolis. He told me that in twenty-three years he’d worked all over the Midwest and in Puerto Rico, and had never seen equipment as old as ours—and only Puerto Rico’s was in worse shape. He said southeast Michigan is known as “the lineman’s graveyard.”
My cousin is a Verizon lineman in New Jersey. “They can make all the power they want, [but they] must be able to distribute it,” he emails. “When we were kids it was a new [system:] new wires, poles, conduit, and there was manpower. Now infrastructure has reached its lifespan. No company wants to pay a workforce or put new poles in the ground. I can see it everywhere.”
But some places are worse than others, and DTE’s customers in southeast Michigan lose power far more often than CMS Energy’s in the rest of the Lower Peninsula. Between them, the two companies have 8.9 million customers and have experienced 9.9 million customer power outages since 2019. DTE had 26 percent of the customers—but 64 percent of the outages.
In Ann Arbor, more than half the households lost power for days in an August 2022 windstorm and then again in this February’s ice storm. My neighborhood and others were again left powerless after storms in July and August.
Public reaction has been fierce. After the ice storm, DTE and CMS executives were grilled at legislative hearings and mocked for the measly credits extended to customers who’d suffered extended outages while the companies were making billions in profits.
They responded that they needed the money to work on their reliability problems. “In 2021, we published a five-year, $8 billion road map for investing in the grid of the future,” DTE CEO Jerry Norcia wrote in a May opinion piece in Crain’s Detroit Business. “Over the past five years, we have invested more than $5 billion on our electrical grid, trimming trees, hardening infrastructure, building new substations, connecting new customers and replacing aging equipment.”
As part of its public relations push, in July DTE offered the Observer “an exclusive tour of its more than $20 million work to rebuild the infrastructure that powers downtown Ann Arbor.” Ryan Stowe, the company’s vice president overseeing the electrical system, was to have been the tour guide—but then thunderstorms with 75 MPH winds roared through southeast Michigan two days before it was scheduled, leaving us and 160,000 other folks without power. DTE moved the tour back a month.
“Over the last few years we haven’t delivered the reliability that we’d like,” Stowe admits when we finally talk. He blames the changing climate—“the volume of extreme weather certainly continues to ramp up”—and the size of DTE’s system. “We’ve got 31,000 miles of overhead conductor [and] about 12 to 15,000 miles of underground cables. We’ve got over 1.1 million poles and something like 650 to 700 substations. Five billion is a lot, and we have done a lot of work, but there’s a lot more in front of us to do.”
He acknowledges that “our system is old. We built out our electrical system starting in the early twenties—it really is the time for investment, upgrade, and renewal of a lot of infrastructure.”
State senator Jeff Irwin agrees that’s true—and a big reason why DTE’s reliability is worse than CMS. Like many people he still knows by its old name, Consumers Power. “A lot of the investments that [DTE] made in generation resources and in distribution resources are just very, very old,” he says. “And Consumers is a newer company. A lot of their equipment is just not as old as DTE’s.”
My tour is rescheduled for August, with the first stop at the Argo substation by the Broadway Bridge. It was originally built to serve the long-since-idled hydropower plant next door, but about 2,000 customers still get power from its faded gray maze of lines and transformers.
The company is preparing to switch them over to the much newer Buckler substation across Broadway. That’s our next stop.
Built in 2012, Buckler looks slick and modern by comparison: two light gray-and-white transformers, plus a “power delivery center”—a long, light gray building that general supervisor Seth Buchinger describes as a “just a larger circuit breaker.” “The maintenance [here] is a lot easier and less frequent and less expensive than the maintenance across the street,” Buchinger explains. “We can decommission two to three of those [older] substations and serve it off of one brand new one.”
DTE also is rebuilding its distribution system to current standards, says Mike Witkowski, DTE central distribution manager. That means “larger poles, stronger crossarms, bigger insulators, [and] stronger, thicker conductors to make it more resilient and robust.” Between the substations and lines, Witkowski figures the work will cost “half a billion dollars over the next ten years.”
The next stop is on Pomona to see the new poles. Most are still made of wood, but the new ones are fourteen rather than eleven inches in diameter, with fiberglass rather than wood crossarms and polymer rather than glass or porcelain insulators, plus a stronger steel clamp top. On the most critical lines between substations, Witkowski says, they’re “starting to put in steel poles. We are also starting to look at concrete poles—it gives you that added strength for the high winds.”
Then we’re on to W. Washington to see what Strowe calls a “remote operable smart device”—a Viper recloser. It lets operators at the company’s headquarters “monitor the status of power flow and voltage and amperage,” he says. “If there’s a problem, they can use those smart devices to isolate the trouble spots and then help feed power in from other directions.”
Stowe compares the recloser to the “breaker panel in your basement. If a tree branch were to fall across the line, it generates a fault. The recloser senses that and opens up,” cutting power. As soon as the fault is cleared, “the recloser closes back in. You’ve still got power.”
Each recloser costs about $100,000 installed. DTE hopes to install 190 across its system this year and then add 2,000 annually to get to about 10,000.
DTE has also begun installing smart meters that will notify remote operators automatically if a customer loses power and “help us be able to judge quickly the extent of an outage.”
In the next five or six years, Stowe says, DTE anticipates “being able to see 30, 40 percent or more improvements in restoration times or just eliminating outages altogether. It’ll still take an overhead line crew if it’s overhead equipment to make the permanent repairs [but] outage durations will get shorter and shorter.”
Despite all the new tech, by far the most important tool in maintaining a reliable grid is cutting back trees around power lines. “We have trimmed more than 25,000 miles of trees over the last five years and will trim an additional 5,000 miles this year,” DTE CEO Norcia wrote in May. “This program is critical: two-thirds of the time our customers are without power is due to falling trees and tree limbs.”
Stowe says that after looking at what other utilities are doing, DTE put “more aggressive standards in place for the specifications that we use to trim to. So we clear a lot more trees, we clear a lot more overhang, target a lot of trees for removal that are dead or present significant hazard to the electrical system.” He says it’s working. “We’ve been collecting data on the tree-related outages, and the minutes associated with those outages are down 60 to 70 percent.”
Some argue that more extreme weather is a good reason to put the electrical grid underground. While DTE is burying more lines, Stowe says, “about 70 percent of our electrical system is overhead today.” It’s easier to work on overhead lines, and “the cost to install on average is as much as 70, 80 percent cheaper—and when a cable fails underground, it’s generally a much longer restoration time.”
DTE is aiming at perfection. “Currently power flows reliably to our customers more than 99 percent of the time,” company spokesperson Amanda Fischer writes in an email. “Our goal is to increase that percentage and provide customers with a flawless grid.”
“We know there’s gonna be outages,” Stowe says, “but our goal is to continue to make improvements and find ways that we can drop that number every year, whether it’s just total number of minutes out of service or total number of outages.
“Is it attainable? We’re gonna find out, but we’re gonna keep marching toward it.”
DTE’s grid is far from flawless now. Mayor Christopher Taylor finds their 99 percent reliability claim less than impressive in a city that has already had three multiday power failures this year. And even “a 99 percent success rate over the course of the year means that my power is out 3.65 days per year,” he points out. “That’s entirely unacceptable.”
“Residents are feeling the pain of increasing power outages and for increasing amounts of time,” says Fourth Ward councilmember Jen Eyer. “The primary reason that reliability isn’t what we expect and deserve is the underinvestment that DTE has put into the grid over the decades in favor of a greater return to shareholders.”
“You can look at their financial reports,” says Fifth Ward council rep Jenn Cornell. “There’s no secret that they’re making profits of over a billion dollars [a year, so] to not have a reliable power grid is pretty insane … I can tell you from the angry emails that I have been copied on, the frustration is real and palpable.”
“They have a monopoly,” says Mayor Taylor. “They ought to be held to account.”
Electric utilities’ services and rates are regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission—but Eyer notes that under current law, the commission “does not have the authority to hold DTE accountable for lack of reliability. That is something that we are really pushing state legislators to add.”
“We think there has to be stronger accountability measures,” Irwin agree. “We think these credits [for loss of power] need to be improved. We think there [may be] other ways to hold them accountable.”
“DTE is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to reliability,” says county commissioner Yousef Rabhi. “And we have above average costs!”
“When we first started experiencing more and more outages, I started to look around the country,” Irwin says. “That’s when I started to get more and more convinced that our reliability stats in Southeast Michigan are bad.”
That’s also when he discovered that “50 percent of the people in the United States get their power from a public authority.”
Ann Arbor might too. Irwin and Rabhi are on the advisory board of Ann Arbor for Public Power, a coalition that’s urging the city to divorce DTE and create its own municipal utility.
“We are in the process of looking at the feasibility of both municipalization and a sustainable energy utility,” says Taylor. “The feasibility study is I think in the last stages of production and will come to council and the public soon.”
“We need to see those numbers, those initial cost estimates,” says Eyer. “There are several options on the table, and we’ll just have to see what the numbers say.”
Cornell remains unconvinced. “We would be buying this broken infrastructure we’re all saying needs to be replaced. Given what we have going on at a city budget level, how do we do that without sacrificing our other priorities?”
“We’re buying their stuff either way,” laughs Irwin. “But if we form a muni, we actually get the stuff!” And with a municipal authority, he believes, “the needs of neighborhoods and residents in the city could be more quickly attended to.”
Though some argue the state’s electric utilities have a legal lock on power production, Irwin says it is possible to buy DTE’s local grid. “If you read the [Michigan] constitution, it’s pretty clear that we can, [though] it’s been a long time since someone’s done it.”
Ann Arbor for Public Power hopes to revive the municipalization movement. Doing so would require a public vote, so only time will tell if they’ll succeed. But one thing is certain: When high winds are forecast, most folks will react like Cornell. “I do get a sinking feeling,” she says. “We’re probably gonna lose power.”
“I get more of a ‘here we go again’ feeling,” says Irwin. “Even a light rain gets me a little bit scared these days, because I’ve just had so many outages!”
DTE does better on a broader measure
In “Power Down,” our October article on DTE’s power outages, we wrote that in the Lower Peninsula “DTE had 26 percent of the customers—but 64 percent of the outages.” We based that on a comparison with Consumers Power owner CMS Energy on the Michigan Public Service Commission’s customer outage history website.
“The best direct comparison is the all-weather reliability numbers,” emails spokesperson Amanda Fischer. “While our numbers track storm-related outages, the all-weather numbers look at the entire year,” which is closer to the customer experience,” she writes. Those metrics “are comparable for each utility.”
Jason Robinson of PowerOutage.US, a source cited by NPR, CNN, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others, concurs. “Customer-outage-history is showing just major events, which can be useful at looking at how severe a particular weather event was, but does not really help understand overall reliability and utility effectiveness in restoring power, especially when trying to compare utilities,” he emails.
The MPSC measures all-weather reliability as the “system average interruption duration index.” From 2020 through 2022, it shows DTE customers averaged 621 minutes in lost power per year, while CMS customers averaged 629 minutes.