As part of DTE’s four-point plan to improve reliability for customers, DTE is rebuilding older portions of grid.
Aaron Balch, DTE’s engineering support manager, shares the benefit for customers and the work ahead for DTE crews.
Q: Aaron, thanks for taking time for questions on this significant topic. When someone says, “We’re rebuilding the grid,” what does that mean to you?
A: It means on a rebuild, we’re replacing entire power poles if needed. We’re even replacing every single wire as a part of the work, based on size and condition. Plus, with the substations, either fully updating everything in them or outright replacing the old substations with new ones. We’re also incorporating automation and integrating new resources across the board. And really, a whole lot more.
Q: You make it sound both simple and complex. Is it?
A: Yes. It can be. In engineering, we start first with the simplest approach, if it works, and then get increasingly complicated as we go if we need to. For example, we’re investigating strategic undergrounding of power now, running new pilot programs where we say: if we’re going to spend this much money to rebuild the whole overhead system, well, why don’t we spend a bit more and just underground the power lines… if it makes sense. More of that is on the way.
Q: Can you give me another example?
A: Sure. Let’s say an area has a newer grid system running with a higher voltage already, but it still has ongoing reliability concerns. Well, that might be a place where we need to add new protection for the system or add more automation or sectionalizing of the circuit, which allows us to isolate outages and reroute power to customers during outages.
Now, if it’s somewhere like the city of Detroit or other older urban areas still being powered by our lower voltage system, we know at some point we want to convert up to that higher voltage — allowing us to connect more customers or support clean energy solutions like electric vehicles — so that becomes more of a whole circuit rebuild from the engineer’s toolbox.
But we also must look at things that are cost effective. So, in way, rebuilding strategies are like a pyramid, where we start at the top with considering the least extreme, least costly method and work our way down to the most extensive and the costliest, which would usually be underground work. One thing is for certain: We have many major projects currently in construction and also in engineering and design planning.
Q: And you take a broad view of what the possibilities might be?
A: Of course. We consider the circuits, you know, the substations, too, and how conversion to the higher voltage would look in a particular area. For example, in areas that have the lower voltage circuits, we might have two or three older substations serving that area now, but with a rebuild and conversion upgrade we might need only one new, much higher capacity substation. And even though it’s just one, it provides quite an upgrade in both reliability and electric growth potential for us and our customers.
Q: So why can’t some of the older substations manage the changes that come with a full grid rebuild?
A: Well, they were fine for their time. But many were built in the 1940s and 1950s, and some are even older than that. A lot of the older equipment these substations contain is still electro-mechanical, so it’s a little bit like comparing a television set from another decade with a brand-new flat screen. It’s night and day with the new equipment and automation we have in a new substation. The conversion work is also a grounded system as well, so that’s a big safety plus for our workers and our customers.
Q: People may have heard about the exciting work happening in the city of Detroit, but that’s not the only place where we are rebuilding the grid, is it?
A: Absolutely not. Detroit has unique challenges because of how extensive the system is now (and will still be with rebuilding) but also due to its age. There was a time when it was the most modern grid in the nation and one of the first city to be fully electrified. The rebuild we have underway in Detroit will eventually make it the most modern again. It will take time, but we will get there. We are also rebuilding in areas like Grosse Pointe, Royal Oak, even in the Thumb Region.
Q: And Pontiac is part of this?
A: For sure, some major rebuilding work is underway there in Oakland County and also in Ann Arbor. We have projects going on and either wrapping up, in progress or in advanced planning across the DTE electric service territory. And more are coming on board within our four-point plan and strategic investment.
Q: You are seen as an engineer who knows a lot about the grid we are replacing but also a lot about what’s coming in next. Fair label?
A: I think so, to a degree. It’s interesting for me to see how a place like Detroit and its electric infrastructure was built out as the city grew rapidly, but also to see what has worked and what hasn’t worked, as well, in the decades that followed. Even down to the small, original wire we see when we upgrade and replace. Like I said before, it was a quite different engineering standard than what we have in our hands today.
Q: We know the work won’t be completed overnight, but with planning and conducting a grid rebuild and considering our customer needs, how long of a view forward are you taking?
A: A pretty long view. It’s one thing to say you’re just going to replace everything on a circuit and make it all new, but it’s important to note we’re not exactly rebuilding like for like. We look at how a circuit needs to be built today, based on the conditions that exist, but importantly, also far into the future. We can’t predict everything, but we must make the best decisions possible with 15-20-year or more electric load projections, tree density assessments, load types and then factor in the expected great growth in overall electrification.
Q: Like electric vehicles, etc.?
Q: You are also factoring in with the grid rebuild many new ways of providing cleaner power, like solar and wind, and in sectioning that power for better reliability with microgrids. On that point, is that exciting or a big challenge, or maybe a bit of both?
A: Both. Microgrids have so much potential, and we’re already working on pilots up on the tip of the Thumb with the Department of Energy. The idea includes self-healing grids, where special technology can detect any issue, like a power outage or a problem with one part of the system, and quickly fix the problem without needing any help from people. That’s exciting. We are factoring that in as we plan and work the rebuilds.
Q: Does that excitement carry over for you and the other engineers at DTE, with so much work being done in the rebuilding area now, compared to maybe a decade ago?
A: No question. We talk about this, what a wonderful time it is to be an engineer at DTE and involved in so many projects, that when completed will really make a long-term positive impact in the lives of the customers and our communities. I think of this as a major selling point when I talk to young engineers today just getting started — the idea that you will be a part of something amazing that’s already happening — you will have your chance to team up on something big that will change electric power in Southeast Michigan for decades to come.