To kick off our “Jobs you didn’t know existed at DTE” series, we caught up with Mike Lebeis, DTE Energy’s designated air quality meteorologist. You might be thinking: Why in the world would DTE need a meteorologist? Lebeis’ main job is to monitor weather and environmental conditions at DTE’s generation sources, like wind parks and power plants.

As DTE transitions from coal-fired power plants to natural gas and renewable plants over the next few years, Lebeis works to identify ways to make that transition happen smoothly, as well as learn how these sources of energy impact Michigan’s air quality. His primary focus is on helping DTE make the switch to clean energy while keeping in mind the stringent standards put forth by the government.

To monitor for changes in weather and air quality, Lebeis employs a variety of tools from the Storm Forecasting Center, as well as the local National Weather Service.

However, Lebeis isn’t the only person at DTE Energy looking up to the sky. Rick Foltman is also a meteorologist at DTE Energy, but his main focus is on how weather can affect our electrical distribution system.

What he tends to look for? You guessed it: high winds.

In the case of severe weather and high winds, Foltman decides whether there is a weather pattern that will bring those high winds down and damage trees, which in turn can cause damage to DTE power lines. But it’s not just high winds that can cause problems. Ice storms are also a risk and can bring power lines down just as easy.

Utilizing these forecast systems, Foltman expertly predicts the strength of severe weather and how it might impact DTE customers on every level.

Obviously, the role of meteorology in DTE is extensive, but how does one get started down this not-so-common career path? Lebeis says he has always been interested in inorganic chemistry and was one of the only students in school that truly was.

Lebies paved the way to this position with DTE through many ways, including working for NASA in Virginia. For those interested in entering the field, he says keep your options open! There are a variety of career paths within the field, not just weather forecasting. Hear more from Mike Lebeis and his work as DTE’s meteorologist in the podcast below.


Podcast transcript:

[00:00] [background music]
RoNeisha Mullen: [00:00] Welcome to today’s “Empowering Michigan” podcast. I am RoNeisha Mullen.
[00:18] Today we are here with Mike Lebeis, air quality meteorologist at DTE Energy. Mike has been with DTE for 39 years. In his role he helps to monitor weather and environmental conditions at our generation sources, like our wind parks and power plants.
[00:25] To get started, Mike, what are some of the reasons that DTE Energy has an air quality meteorologist on staff?
Mike Lebeis: [00:33] The main area that we deal with is the transition, as we transition from coal fire power plants to natural gas and renewable. A lot of that involves still trying to keep reliable power supplies with the coal plants as they run for their last couple years.
[00:48] With the laws that have come down from EPA being very restrictive, there’s a very difficult situation trying to bridge that gap between coal fire generation and future natural gas and renewable generation.
[01:05] RoNeisha: Tell us a little bit about how air quality can affect our energy system.
[01:12] Mike: Air quality can affect our energy system. I think back to a situation we had near River Rouge Power Plant from about 20, 25 years ago when we had one of our customer’s aluminum reprocessing plant that didn’t properly handle their control devices.
[01:28] They were putting a conductive mist on our transmission towers coming out of River Rouge Power Plant, which in effect disrupted their power supply because it provided a conductive pathway for the electricity to go to the towers.
[01:45] We had to prove to them that they were not doing what they should do, from a control device perspective, and built a stack to do the stack test. We had mustard color droplets of conductive metals landing on us while we were doing the stack test.
[02:04] That was one of the things that we’ve done where, in effect, the customer made it difficult for us to provide them electricity.
[02:17] RoNeisha: What are some of the tools and techniques that you use to monitor the weather, and the air quality, and to do your job, in general?
[02:25] Mike: DTE has a weather site that takes advantage of all the data that’s out there and all the different projections from different sources, whether it be the storm forecasting center. Also, there’s the local National Weather office.
[02:40] Also, there’s models that they look at, too. That the forecasters for the National Weather Service look at that we look at. We’re looking at slightly different things than they’re looking at, to a great extent.
[02:51] The key things that we tend to look for is are the winds going to be high, about a mile up in the atmosphere. If they are, the big concern is will there be a mechanism to bring those high winds down to the surface and cause damage to trees, which subsequently affects our lines and other things.
[03:07] There’s other types of weather that cause problems, too. For example, we have had some ice storms in the past where you need, normally, at least about a quarter inch of ice in order to start to bring lines down, and trees, and things like that.
[03:20] We look at probability forecasts that look for different levels of icing, because the two thresholds are a tenth of an inch and a quarter of an inch that you generally look at. If you see a quarter of an inch, a probability of 50 percent, you know you need to get ready for some damage into your system.
[03:35] RoNeisha: When people think of meteorologists, they think of forecasters, the ones we see on TV that predict the weather for us each day. How does your job differ from that?
[03:49] Mike: My job is quite a bit different than that. More than anything I deal with as we put in new sources to try to transition to more natural gas generation.
[03:59] Because the standards are so stringent right now, it’s becoming more and more difficult to cite even facilities that help to expedite that. Like at some of our new compressor stations, or at compressor stations that we have a certain number of engines, we’re adding engines to push more natural gas through the pipelines.
[04:17] It turns out that in a lot of cases the office buildings, and even small boilers associated with the office buildings, are allegedly causing problems at the property lines of those locations. That we have to build stacks taller than we historically have in the past, because the air quality standards have dropped dramatically from what they used to be 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
[04:41] RoNeisha: Air quality meteorologists isn’t one of the professions we always hear about at career day. How do you end up in a field like this?
[04:50] Mike: Probably more than anything, when I started out at University of Michigan I really enjoyed inorganic chemistry, and was one of the few meteorologist that did. Everybody else tried to avoid the course or tried to squeak by with a C, but that’s something that I really enjoyed dramatically.
[05:06] In fact, later on, when I was in my senior year and in grad school, I ended up working for Dr. Dingle that had a project with NASA, out of Virginia, dealing with space shuttle simulations. What it was, was trying to simulate the space shuttle ground cloud being sucked up into sucked up into a thunderstorm cell.
[05:29] It turned out that when we were doing test launches of the space shuttle they had, because of the type of propellant that they used in the space shuttle rockets, it had a lot of hydrogen chloride in it. What happened was it got sucked up into a thunderstorm cell and destroyed an orange grove close to the space center.
[05:49] In effect, we were trying to simulate that phenomena. I was involved in some of the subroutines that fed into the people getting PhDs to simulate that phenomenon.
[06:00] RoNeisha: Any advice to anyone who may be looking to enter this field?
[06:05] Mike: The big thing is keep your options open. It’s not just weather forecasting that’s out there. There are other applications that are really important, whether they deal with air quality, whether they deal with severe storm forecasting related to business operations, and things like that.
[06:22] There are a variety of openings out there. You have to, again, make contacts, talk to people. When you get an opportunity, jump on it, and hopefully your name will get called.
[06:34] [background music]
[06:34] RoNeisha: Thank you, Mike. We appreciate you coming in today to tell us a little bit about what an air quality meteorologist does and how the weather can have a big impact on our energy system. Thank you.
[06:46] Mike: You’re welcome.

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