Municipalities, utilities strive to stay ahead of surging severe storms

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 26, 2021

 Franklin-Bingham Farms Police Chief Dan Roberts cuts through a downed tree limb following powerful storms that blew through at the beginning of the month.

Franklin-Bingham Farms Police Chief Dan Roberts cuts through a downed tree limb following powerful storms that blew through at the beginning of the month.

Photo provided by the Village Office of Franklin

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BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD/FRANKLIN — The first week of July brought record-breaking floods to metro Detroit.

Then, less than a week later, tropical storm-like winds blew through the area.

The same thing happened the week after, too.

It’s not your imagination. Weather patterns in the region are getting more extreme, according to many climate and meteorology specialists. Those on the ground who clean up after those torrential storms — like public works teams, utility companies and first responders — can paint an even more vivid picture.

“Generally, we had over 100 trees cleared from roadways. Hundreds, if not thousands of other trees came down out of the right of way, which the residents will have to clean up and remove,” said Bloomfield Township Public Works Director Noah Mehalski of the July 20 storms the next morning. “Last night’s event knocked 30 trees into the right of way alone.”

Tree and debris cleanup in Birmingham was substantial, too. After all, Birmingham has been a Tree City USA community for 43 years.

“Frankly, it’s been all hands on deck for the past three weeks, including the initial calls for storm damage cleaning and making areas safe, and now an aggressive cleanup and chipping curbside debris,” said Birmingham Public Works Director Lauren Wood.

She added that worse damage was likely avoided since the city has a “proactive forestry team” that trims branches from right-of-way trees on a 7-year cycle.

“This is a very rare service to be provided by municipalities, which better serves the (local) community,” Wood said. “We take pride in our ‘green infrastructure.’”

In the village of Franklin, branch cleanup is contracted to Johnson Landscaping, which has been picking up and chipping tree debris along the roadside for weeks.

“Several days of emergency work was required to clear the roads and take down dangerous trees,” Village Administrator Roger Fraser said in an email newsletter. “With rare exception, that debris is no larger than what individuals can drag or carry to the street.”

The headache for most residents in the Eagle’s coverage area wasn’t caused by the trees themselves or the property damage they caused, but instead the utility lines they brought down when they fell.

About 200,000 customers were left without power after the July 20 storm, according to DTE Energy Director of Regional Customer Operations Ana Medina.

“What happened with that last storm is that we had a very heavy band that came through, with winds up to 70 mph,” Medina explained. “Restoration was impacted by the severity of what we found, like broken wires, broken poles. We were having to repair a lot of infrastructure.”

The response for electricity restoration was prompt in most areas, but most would agree that it would be preferable not to lose power in the first place. Medina said DTE Energy is well aware its infrastructure is aging, and for the past three years, she said, the company has been working to update all of its equipment, to the tune of $1 billion every year and a similar investment annually into the future.

“We do a couple different things,” she said. “The (Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township) communities have completed line clearance this year for different circuits, and we’ve updated a lot of overhead equipment that will prevent outages, and we’ve also done some substation work.”

Those updates include replacing wires with thicker ones, replacing poles with larger ones and upgrading neighborhoods to smart devices. The aim is to make metro Detroit’s power grid more resilient in the face of severe storms, which don’t seem to be going anywhere.

“We’re getting winds that are nearly as strong as tropical storms, coupled with an already-saturated ground from all the rain,” Medina said. “We do different things, but we cannot control the extreme weather. The weather patterns are really changing, so we’re hardening the infrastructure.”

The Michigan Public Service Commission is making sure the massive utility provider does just that. In an email, MPSC Public Information Officer Matt Helms provided an outline of the commission’s role in assessing storm-related service disruption and restoration.

“The MPSC routinely monitors utility storm response and receives updates from utilities multiple times a day during significant storm repair efforts to ensure the companies are meeting service quality requirements that include timely restoration of service to customers,” Helms wrote to the Eagle. “If the MPSC sees situations where utilities aren’t meeting those standards, the agency has the ability to investigate to ensure the companies improve. That said, the storms that impacted metro Detroit in recent weeks have been highly unusual in their severity and frequency, the effect of a changing climate.”

The MPSC is the entity that ultimately requests DTE and other utilities to increase spending on upgrades to aging infrastructure, along with additional tree trimming, since tree contact with distribution lines is decidedly the biggest source of power outages for most Michigan utilities.

A statewide energy assessment was performed in 2019 following the infamous Consumers Energy compressor station fire in Macomb County that left massive portions of its service area without natural gas during a stint of dangerously cold winter temperatures.

The final report from that assessment, ordered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, determined that Michigan’s energy delivery systems are “adequate to meet the needs of Michigan customers,” even during abnormally high demand, equipment failures and inclement weather.

But the report included a list of 37 recommendations to be taken by the MPSC, regulated utility companies, lawmakers and other stakeholders to beef up the systems we have now and explore alternative energy moving forward that is more sustainable and resilient.

“Recent extreme weather events, natural disasters, and cyber incursions have brought the vulnerability of the electric system into sharp focus. These events have demonstrated that planning for long-duration power interruptions caused by high-impact, low-probability events will require new approaches to power system resilience above and beyond previous hardening efforts,” said the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in a prepared statement.  

To review the MPSC’s report, visit the commission’s page on michigan.gov.

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