FerndaleJune 27, 2012
DTE outlines plans to improve electrical service in Ferndale
By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer
FERNDALE — Residents concerned about power outages in the city should be happy to learn that DTE Energy is moving forward with its plans to build another substation in Ferndale, but the new facility likely will not be up and running until late 2014.
Last July, many were outraged when, in the middle of a scorching heat wave that reached triple-digit temperatures, a blackout struck the city and left as many as 5,500 homes and hundreds of businesses without power for four or five days. The initial problem was caused by a transformer failure at the DTE substation at West Nine Mile and Dover, and additional setbacks occurred after an underground cable that feeds the substation went down.
Representatives from DTE returned to City Hall on June 11 to provide officials with an update on the company’s progress in bringing more reliable service to Ferndale homes and businesses. They gave a presentation about their recent Southeast Oakland County Electrical System Health Check and answered questions from the City Council.
According to Mike Palchesko, regional manager of corporate and government affairs for DTE, the company is currently in the process of acquiring property in the southeast area of Ferndale to construct a second substation that will allow the city to handle a greater electrical load in the event of another emergency situation.
The new substation “is going to provide us with some additional capacity and also some additional flexibility,” Palchesko told the council. “If we run into some issues … we will have extra abilities to do some transferring of circuits and so on. We have identified a piece of property, but I’m not yet able to divulge it because there are still negotiations going on. Once we do finalize (a contract) with the owner of the property, I’ll be coming in here to City Hall again and working … on the approval process and how to move forward with that.”
Still, DTE’s improvement plan will be a slow and steady one. Ron Gerken, supervising engineer of regional planning and design for DTE, estimated that the earliest that the company will be able to get the new substation online is by the end of 2014. He told the council that it typically takes a year or more just to order all the major equipment, which is followed by a construction and installation period, as well as overhead and underground line work.
But Gerken also stressed that Ferndale residents have no reason to worry about another massive blackout. He pointed out that DTE has been working with city officials over the last year to address any burgeoning problems by upgrading the existing system.
“We made changes last year to monitor it and trim trees and do pole-top maintenance to make certain that there was not something out there that was imminently going to fail,” he said. “We feel that with the changes we made after the situation last summer, that if we don’t have a double contingency, we should still be able to carry all the (electrical) load we have over the next two years without interruption.”
In addition, DTE spent time patrolling Ferndale for defective equipment and installing new fuses in some of the substation’s circuits as a preventative measure. Since that time, Gerken believes that DTE’s service in the city has improved considerably.
“I know that the reliability of Ferndale and this whole area has been much better,” he said. “It hasn’t been perfect, but we haven’t lost entire substations either. And the times that we have had (power) outages, they have been fixed relatively quickly. … Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee service all the time, but we can hope that we get a lot better service than we did last year, and we’ve been working with that objective in mind.”
Gerken noted that the “abnormally hot” weather last summer was a major contributing factor to electrical problems all over the Detroit area. In Ferndale, the extreme heat placed a great increase on the load of the city’s substation and ultimately caused its transformers to fail.
“We had the loss of the substation here, and that is a very rare occurrence,” Gerken said. “Last year, I think we lost four substations (in metro Detroit), and I can only remember losing one before that in all the time that I’ve worked here. So it was a very unusual summer.”
In a subsequent interview, Mayor Dave Coulter said that the communication between Ferndale and DTE has been “very open and very productive” ever since the blackout. He called that incident the most difficult thing that the city has faced since he became mayor a year and a half ago, and in response, city officials have been working diligently to establish plans for both the long and short terms.
“The silver lining of this whole experience was that we learned a lot about how to take care of folks in an emergency situation,” Coulter explained. “We used the Kulick (Community) Center as a location for people to stay cool, and we started our ‘Go Where You Vote for Your Note’ (program) to keep them informed if they lose power. So if we do have another blackout, we will be much better prepared.”
Coulter pointed out that Ferndale officials are fully aware of the dangers posed by such high temperatures over an extended period of time. “With heat like that, being without power is not just inconvenient, it’s also a health and safety issue,” he said. “We are very sensitive about the potential for major problems there. All we can do now is hold DTE to the plans that they’ve laid out and try to minimize the chances of something like this happening again.”
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