DTE sends line workers to 'storm school' to improve its outage record (2024)

Candice WilliamsThe Detroit News

Westland — After each climbing up a utility pole, overhead linemen apprentices Nicholas Loyola and Travis Deere worked with fellow trainees on the ground to restore a downed power line.

With some guidance from Doug Huffman, an overhead lineman instructor for DTE Energy, the team had repaired the wire and carefully lifted it up to reattach. It’s a technique they would practice repeatedly as part of four years of training to become journeymen.

DTE Energy gave media a-behind-the-scenes look Friday at how the utility conducts repairs during a "storm school" demonstration at its training center in Westland.

The demonstration comes as the utility prepares for what is considered the start of storm season in Michigan, a time when weather-related outages increase and the utility typically faces criticism about the system's reliability. According to the National Weather Service, southeast Michigan experiences the highest occurrence of severe weather from June to September.

“In recent years, we've seen a significant uplift in the severity of weather, whether it be ice and snow, wind speeds, torrential rains, etc,” said Brian Calka, vice president of distribution and operations for DTE Energy. “We are entering the time of the year when you see a lot of these increased wind speeds and what have you. So storm response is going to be an incredibly important aspect of the work that we perform.”

Training at the center is a daily occurrence, for apprentices as well as for continuing education for workers as the utility brings online new technology it says will improve service reliability and shorten the length of power outages.

Annually DTE Energy hires 50-60 overhead linemen and 20 to 30 underground splicers, out of a pool of about 1,500 candidates, Calka said.

DTE Energy has a request before the Michigan Public Service Commission for a rate increase of $456 million. If approved, that means about $11 a month for the average DTE customer starting in January 2025.

It’s a move that the utility says will help reduce power outages by 30% and cut outage time 50% by 2029.

Reliability concerns

The utility has faced criticism regarding the rate increase request as well as its service reliability, including the frequency and duration of outages. DTE Energy ranked low among other energy utilities across the country in an American Customer Satisfaction Index Energy Utilities Study released in March.

Amy Bandyk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, said that based on the most recent federal data from 2021 in its latest Utility Performance Report, DTE Energy averaged a restoration time of 586.6 minutes, compared to the national average of 315 minutes.

“We can’t really explain this poor performance by pointing to bad weather in Michigan because utilities in neighboring states with similar weather do better,” she said. She noted that Ohio and Indiana averaged restoration times of 185 minutes and 212 minutes, respectively.

Calka said that according to the company’s data, the average customer had power 99.9% of the time last year.

“So 99.9% is the percentage of the year that they actually had power,” he said. “The average customer. Feels good, right? Sounds like a good talk track, but at the same time we realize we have more work to do. We want to get that 99.9% up to 100% in an ideal fashion."

DTE Energy is working through a four-point plan to address the resiliency of its grid, Calka said, as well as adding technology and rebuilding it in key areas.

One area is the utility’s tree trimming and removal program designed to reduce outages caused by fallen trees and branches.

Within the past year, DTE Energy has implemented new technology as part of the plan, Calka said.

One of those pieces of equipment, a Viper Recloser, sat at the training site in Westland. DTE Energy has installed about 400 throughout the state, with the goal of installing 10,000 by the end of the decade.

The Viper Recloser acts as a big switch that helps reroute electricity to minimize an outage area as crews repair a smaller impacted area due to incidents such as downed wires.

“So it's the difference of minutes of restoration versus hours, three, four or five hours," Calka said. "So that's the benefit it brings us. It allows us to really reduce the size of the outage but then restore much quicker than we otherwise would.”

Weather factors

It can be difficult for a utility company to rank high with in customer satisfaction when it has to contend with challenges outside of its control, such as extreme weather that can cause longer power outages, said Forrest Morgeson, associate professor of marketing at Michigan State University and director of research emeritus at the ACSI, which published the customer satisfaction survey.

“In this particular industry, they have heavy reliance on energy prices, which are impacted by global phenomenon, not just local phenomenon, that they have pretty limited control over,” he said. “And they get hurt the most in terms of their customer relationships by uncontrollable weather phenomenon as we saw with DTE Energy in the last couple of years, when they had prolonged and sustained outages because of major storms that came through. So it’s tough for that industry, in the same way other industries can, to develop and maintain the same kinds of customer relationships.”

Morgeson said utilities including DTE Energy are doing a better job nowadays keeping customers informed through channels including outage maps, text messages and automated calls. It's critical as the industry pushes toward rebuilding and strengthening its infrastructure.

“I know as a DTE customer myself it's much easier to find out what areas are affected by an outage, what the estimated time of return to services is and those kinds of things ...” he said. “It doesn't change the fact that natural resource pricing has been through the roof the last couple of years and we're all paying more for gas and electric and that sort of thing, but it's something in the market they can do proactively to maintain customer relationships."



DTE sends line workers to 'storm school' to improve its outage record (2024)


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