Move power lines underground

Michigan is consistently ranked as one of the worst states for frequency of power outages and their duration. And the forecast isn’t looking any better. The state is likely to experience more extreme weather events than in the past.

This February, Michigan saw its worst ice storm in more than 40 years, leaving more than 600,000 residents without power. DTE Energy Co. CEO Jerry Norcia says that moving grid lines underground will help fight the effects of ice storms like the one this year.

The company plans to do just that, but customers have to be prepared to pay.

Through a five-year, $9 billion plan, DTE says it can build a grid capable of surviving worsening weather patterns. The plan includes tree-trimming, rebuilding parts of the grid, investing in automation and burying lines.

How successful the utility is at meeting the timetable depends on whether it can get rate hikes approved by the Public Service Commission, which turned down its last request. .

In a meeting with The Detroit News Editorial board, Norcia called the recent ice storm “the most expensive storm in history,” due to its extensive damage across the state which cost DTE more than $200 million. More than 3,000 wires were brought down in DTE’s distribution system alone, leaving some of the company’s 2.3 million customers without power for more than a week.

If the system moves underground, severe outages and disruptions are significantly less likely to occur.

“I don’t know that the above-ground system can be 100% storm proof,” Norcia said. “(Through an underground network) we’ll be as storm proof as places like Florida.”

Norcia says that customers should expect a 2-3% increase on their energy bills as they make the journey underground. This would be less than the 4-6% residential hike customers saw during the pandemic.

Customers also have the option of moving underground the service lines from poles to their homes. That’s a relatively quick and inexpensive process. It can be done in an afternoon for roughly $600. Those household lines are often the last to be reconnected after an outage.

The most hopeful piece of the plan from the user viewpoint is the automaton of the gird, which will allow DTE to isolate and work around downed wires and blown transformers.

Right now, DTE operates with 10-15% automation, Norcia says, while Florida and several other states are nearly fully automated.

No one thinks much about the electric grid as long as it’s working. But when it goes down, it’s all they think about.

Reliability is especially critical as the nation moves to an electric vehicle fleet. A bad storm could cripple the transportation system as well as leave homes in the dark.

The $9 billion price tag is expensive. But it Michigan has non choice but to keep its power infrastructure in top shape.

“It’s sort of like having great roads, bridges, and water systems,” Norcia said. “It’s the fabric of our infrastructure that will drive prosperity and economic development.”

If the rate hikes to fund the project are approved, DTE has to honor its promise of creating a more reliable electric grid.

— The Detroit News


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