CUB of Michigan Tackling Proposals to Reduce Power Outages

A recloser is a type of electrical equipment used to automatically detect faults on a line. Source: TheEnergeticEngineer, Wikimedia Foundation.

The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is undergoing a rare review of the standards for electric service quality and reliability, two things that all Michigan households depend upon to have a high quality of life. The Citizens Utility Board (CUB) of Michigan is participating in a Workgroup of utilities and other stakeholders that are advising the MPSC staff on how to update the standards, and any residential customer can get involved too (see our previous blog post about the first Workgroup meeting.)

Another meeting is coming up on Feb. 12. CUB has again submitted comments, this time providing more details on our proposals on how to design a new bill credit for compensating customers who experience unacceptably low levels of electric service and reliability.

Here is another issue that came up at the last meeting on Jan. 8 that the MPSC will likely bring up again.

The MPSC staff is gathering information on the unique challenges of momentary power outages. If the power goes out for even a split second, there are impacts that not only inconvenience consumers, but have a measurable economic cost. Your clock has to be reset. Maybe you miss an appointment as a result. Your security system goes out. An important medical device is interrupted.

Momentary power outages are becoming of greater concern as technology develops to combat longer outages. “Fault location isolation and service restoration,” or FLISR, refers to an array of hardware and software technologies that allow utilities to automatically detect problems on a circuit, isolate the trouble area and restore power to other customers on the circuit. As electric grids adopt FLISR, outages that previously would have lasted hours can now last minutes or seconds. While that is clearly an improvement, momentary outages still have costs, and so future efforts to improve reliability may need to focus on eliminating or at least drastically reducing these short interruptions.

In addition, it appears that the technology used to test electric wires for the source of outages can also cause momentary “blinks” that interrupt power for unaffected customers.

For those reasons, CUB supports the idea of mandating the reporting of momentary outages so that regulators and the public can review if they become a bigger problem.

A related problem has to do with the voltage of the electrical equipment used in the grid. As anyone who has traveled internationally knows, electric devices designed to work at a certain voltage level cannot work or even be damaged if plugged into an electric grid designed for another voltage level.

But voltages differ not just between countries, but also between modern equipment and older equipment. There are still older components of the distribution grid in Michigan that are particularly susceptible to voltage problems. The large grocery store chain Kroger experiences frequent voltage fluctuations at its stores in DTE’s service territory, according to testimony a consultant representing Kroger filed with the MPSC in DTE’s most recent rate case.

CUB plans to discuss this voltage issue at the MIPowerGrid meetings. One potential solution is to require utilities to use the “smart meters” they have installed to detect voltage levels and use that information to upgrade equipment.

Here is the MPSC’s background page about this ongoing process to update the Technical Standards for Electric Service and the Service Quality and Reliability Standards for Electric Distribution Systems.