Ice storm showcased Michigan’s fragile electric grid. Here’s what could be done to bolster it –

Warning tape that reads “Danger – live wire – keep away” surrounds a fallen limb and power line at the corner of Brockman Blvd. and Copley Ave. in Ann Arbor on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.Jacob Hamilton |
Climate change has increasingly made weather extremes more common in Michigan, and the recent mid-week ice storm that destroyed tree branches and gnarled power lines is the latest example.
Wednesday night’s storm brought 12 hours of freezing rain that blanketed much of southern Michigan in a layer of ice, more than a half-inch thick in some places. More than 700,000 homes and businesses were without power the morning after Wednesday night’s ice storm. Only a fraction had electricity restored by Friday, less than 9%.
Utility officials and state regulators warned Michiganders not to approach downed power lines or even attempt to clean up felled trees for risk of the ice-covered branches being electrified from downed lines. A Paw Paw firefighter died Wednesday night after coming into contact with such a downed power line.
Experts have said Michigan’s utilities struggle to keep the power on as climate change intensifies.
Wicked winter weather and powerful summertime thunderstorms rip across the heavily forested landscape more often, and watchdogs say Michigan’s grid – rated among the worst in the nation – frequently falters. Utility data shows strong winds, fallen branches and toppled trees are more frequently knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of residents, sometimes for days on end.
The latest example of extreme weather is this week’s crippling ice storm, expected to leave tens of thousands of Michiganders in the dark for as many as five or six days.
Utility officials have said they are investing in technology and ramping up tree trimming to “harden” the grid and prevent the state’s signature tree cover from disrupting service to customers whenever strong winds blow strong or a sleet storm slicks the landscape.
Tree trimming is statistically proven the best way to prevent power outages in the most wooded areas. The trouble is Michiganders love their trees and plant them everywhere, even right up to and within utility right-of-way zones. They also hate to see them hacked up or altogether cut down for the benefit of a nearby power line.
Related: Burying power lines, trimming more trees may improve Michigan’s failure-prone electric grid, experts say
Other options include burying power lines, but there are pros and cons.
Advantages to underground lines include less risk from strong winds, fallen trees and branches, and animal mishaps. Trade-offs are that repairs can take longer, and underground lines have a shorter lifespan by several decades.
Then there is the expense; utility officials said estimated costs are about $630,000 per mile in rural areas and as much as $1.3 million in urban places.
Advocates of rooftop solar energy and other distributed power generation argue residents can rely on the electricity they generate themselves when the power grid fails. Yet there are hurdles to overcome such as up-front cost of the equipment and even caps on rooftop solar power utilities must accept onto the grid.
Regional power grid operators last year invested $10 billion in high-voltage power lines for long-range electricity transmission, an effort to get more distributed renewable energy generation into the power supply. The goals are to improve reliability and prepare for more renewable sources to come online, which means a reduced risk of power outages and rolling blackouts.
Michigan’s utility regulators launched efforts for an independent audit of last summer’s storm response by power providers after a “pattern of widespread, lengthy outages from increasingly severe storms in Michigan.” A request for proposals is expected to be ready soon, officials said.
The Michigan Public Service Commission hosted a two-part, online technical conference on electric grid reliability and storm response in late 2021 after widespread power outages from storms that swept across Lower Michigan in mid-August and left more than 2.4 million without electricity for as much as a week.
State officials created new reporting measures for utilities with plans to develop a related online clearinghouse of data about system reliability, outages, and storm response.
Researchers said climate change and its effects should be considered in power grid planning.
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