Consumers Energy has unveiled what utility officials say are aggressive goals to deliver a stronger and more resilient grid in the wake of increased public and regulatory criticism of the state’s electric reliability.
The Jackson-based utility debuted the $9 billion, five-year Reliability Roadmap plan at a press conference this morning in Grand Rapids.
The roadmap highlights Consumers Energy’s goal to have no more than 100,000 customers experience an outage from any severe weather event and to ensure that all customers experiencing an outage will have power restored within 24 hours.
“I know those goals sound pretty ambitious; they’re actually the most aggressive goals we’ve set as a utility on our electric system,” said Tonya Berry, senior vice president of transformation and engineering at Consumers Energy.
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To achieve these goals, the utility plans to bury thousands of miles of power lines in a process known as undergrounding, which officials say customers have been asking about in the wake of recent severe weather events. Consumers detailed a goal to bury 5,000 miles of power lines over a five-year period.
“We’ve shown that we can cost-competitively underground in the areas where the trees are very thick and trimming them is cost-prohibitive,” said Greg Salisbury, vice president of electric distribution engineering for Consumers Energy.
Consumers’ plan also hinges on increasing tree trimming efforts along 7,000 miles of power lines each year, modernizing the grid through investments in technology such as automatic transfer reclosers, and working to harden the grid through continued inspection and accelerated infrastructure upgrades.
The utility also has hired nearly 100 workers to implement its undergrounding efforts and more than 350 new apprentices who are training as journeymen linemen.
In addition to severe weather preparedness, the new blueprint will help Consumers Energy prepare for a future with customers’ increased adoption of electric vehicles, according to Salisbury.
“This roadmap is designed to reflect the growth of electric vehicle usage across the state and to prepare our system so that everybody can participate in that transformation,” he said.
The cost to ratepayers for the Reliability Roadmap investment is unknown at this point, but Berry said Consumers Energy will “have to see how it plays out” as the plan is vetted.
The Reliability Roadmap announcement comes one month after powerful storms caused lengthy power outages for roughly 200,000 customers spanning from Grand Rapids into southeast Michigan, some of whom were without power for more than four days.
On Aug. 30, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) announced a potential plan to financially penalize utilities for lengthy and repeated outages. The plan follows moves by the MPSC in March to increase reimbursement rates to $35 per day for customers who experience an extended outage, and to make the credit automatic. Until that point, customers had to apply for the bill credit, which was set at $25 per qualifying outage.
As well, the reliability plan comes after the state regulator called for a third-party audit of Consumers and DTE Energy following a groundswell of complaints about lengthy power outages and the dangers of downed wires.
Berry said during today’s press conference that “it takes a partnership” to improve reliability, noting that Consumers Energy has been in talks with the MPSC about its new plan.
“We’ve already started sharing parts of this plan with the Commission,” Berry said. “We’ll file, and we’ll have ongoing discussions where they’ll be able to weigh in and provide input to make sure they’re in agreement.”
The regulatory filing is expected to take place this Friday, according to Consumers officials.
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