DTE Energy, Consumers Energy face power-outage challenges
The power in Leah Thomas' Beverly Hills, Michigan, home went out about 9 p.m. last Wednesday.
It was back on Sunday evening, but was lost again the next day. And like thousands of Michigan residents left in the dark following back-to-back ice storms, Thomas wonders when the lights will come on — and stay on.
"It has been unsettling ... not knowing exactly what is going to happen day to day," she told The Associated Press Tuesday.
Detroit-based DTE Energy said Monday afternoon that service had been returned to more than 95% of its more than 600,000 customers who lost power during Wednesday's ice storm. Another 46,000 were out Tuesday following a second ice storm on Monday.
Jackson, Michigan-based Consumers Energy had restored power to about 260,000 customers who had lost service before Monday's storm knocked out electricity to another 45,000 homes and businesses. The utility said Tuesday that power to those customers should be back on by Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Thomas said her family is trying to keep their pipes from bursting because of the cold and have lost all the food in their refrigerator.
DTE Energy officials have said the problems caused by Wednesday's ice storm are the worst in about 50 years. A December 2013 storm knocked out power to nearly 600,000 homes and businesses in Michigan. Experts say such weather extremes could become more commonplace.
CHANGING WEATHER PATTERNS
"Events like freezing rain ... they're pretty rare but they're showing up in places that are new and in times that are new," said Richard Rood, a professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering. "They might be a little more intense because its warmer. Before, (the moisture) might fall as snow, which is not nearly as damaging."
Beginning last Wednesday, rain began to fall across parts of Michigan. As the temperature dropped, it became sleet and ice.
"Freezing rain events cause just massive tree falls, and then the ice on the line weights the lines," Rood said. "Some of this is very hard to plan for, but there are ways you can build a resilience, often by tree management, which is the first line of defense."
Heat events during the summer and winter weather like the ice storms just aren't good for older infrastructure across the United States, Rood said.
"That infrastructure was built for a different climate, different environmental conditions," he said. "Now it's changing, and we need to be thinking about the future."
Thomas said she wonders about the soundness of that infrastructure.
"We did have an ice storm on Wednesday last week, but the ice melted over 24-48 hours — and here we are days later still having a problem," she said.
But delays in restoration have more to do with planning and logistics than an infrastructure, said Seth Guikema, professor of Industrial and Operational Engineering at the University of Michigan.
"A lot of it is being able to plan ahead and forecast," he said.
WHAT UTILITIES ARE DOING
DTE Energy Chair and Chief Executive Jerry Norcia has said the utility has spent billions of dollars working to prepare the power grid for severe weather events, including trimming 5,000 to 6,000 miles (9,600 kilometers) of trees each year to prevent branches from falling onto power lines.
Consumers Energy is carrying out a five-year, $5.4 billion plan to build a stronger, smarter power grid that reduces the number and length of outages.
Last week, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for accountability, saying "we can move faster as these climate events happen more and more often."
State Sen. Sean McCann, a Democrat from Kalamazoo and chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment, said Tuesday that he wants an investigation.
WHO GETS HELP FIRST
Consumers Energy supplies electricity to 1.8 million homes and businesses, largely outside of metropolitan Detroit. DTE Energy has about 2.3 million electricity customers in southeastern Michigan.
Hospitals, fire stations, nursing homes and other critical services receive high priority in restorations, said Ryan Stowe, a DTE Energy vice president.
From there, crews move on to large pockets of outages before beginning service restoration "where we focus a lot of resources on going out and kind of triaging individual homes," said Stowe, who called the ice storm the largest in the company's history.
"The ice sure puts quite a burden on all these trees that are around our area and around our lines," he said. "We're going to continue to look for ways to make the system more resilient, be able to handle any damage that's coming from those trees."
OPTIONS FOR UTILITY CUSTOMERS
Utility customers in the Detroit area may have more to be concerned with as more cold, wet and icy weather is expected this weekend. Snow, freezing rain and wind are expected Friday night into Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
"It's not clear to me that a homeowner can do very much to prevent power from going out," said Parth Vaishnav, an assistant professor of sustainable systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. "In the summer, homeowners can turn up their thermostats a bit to reduce their air conditioning loads. If enough people do that, that may help protect the electricity grid when it is stretched. But that is a different problem from physical damage to the electricity distribution grid, which is what caused the recent outages."
Vaishnav, who lives in the Ann Arbor, Michigan, area also lost power because of Wednesday's ice storm.
"We happen to have a gas fireplace," he said. "We used that, but you don't want to have to rely on gas. We have an electric vehicle that lets us draw 15 amps. That's quite a lot of power from the battery. Half the battery would keep our fridge, a few lights, and furnace running for a couple of days."
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