Electricity has never been more essential to life than it is today. We rely on it each day to work, play and stay connected to loved ones.

When the groundwork for DTE Energy’s electric infrastructure system was laid more than a century ago, it was built as a one-way distribution system. It moved electricity from power plants to homes, providing customers the energy required for a much simpler day-to-day life. Since then, DTE has continued to build and evolve the energy infrastructure to meet the needs of its customers through the years. Today, portions of our electric grid are more than 90 years old and still in operation. This aging equipment will be challenged to provide reliable power to our 2.3 million electric customers across southeast Michigan for the rest of the 21st century.

It’s time for a grid upgrade. DTE’s Distribution Operations team submitted a report that outlines how we are rebuilding the grid to be more reliable and resilient in the short term and meet the changing needs of our customers in the longer term. Sharon Pfeuffer, vice president of Distribution Engineering and Construction, is spearheading the grid plan and shares the fundamentals of it below. 

Sharon G Pfeuffer
VP Distribution Eng. & Construction DO — Distribution Operations

Q: What is the new grid plan?

Sharon: We’ve developed a new, detailed grid investment plan for the next five years. We’ve also laid out our 10- to 15-year vision for the grid. It outlines our plan to modernize the grid to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers, now and into the future. It addresses how we’ll trim trees and strengthen the grid to be more resilient, especially during severe weather like we’ve experienced this summer. It also addresses how we’ll modernize the grid to add more capacity. This will support future electric growth for things like electric vehicles, as well as the technology and integration required to support our customers’ increasing adoption of rooftop solar generation and storage.

Q: How does the grid plan differ from the past five-year reliability plan?

Sharon: Let’s start with a little background. In 2018, our company introduced a five-year plan focused on accelerating the investment in hardening (strengthening) and modernizing the grid. We know it’s working. In areas where work is complete, our customers are seeing a significant improvement in reliability. We want all our customers in Southeast Michigan to experience this level of safe, reliable service from DTE. That’s why we’re putting in the work to ensure we provide our customers with the same reliability as the top-ranked energy companies in the country. In this new plan, we’re not only planning for the next five years. We’re looking further out to make sure we’re addressing the infrastructure updates, technology requirements and capacity needs our customers will demand from the grid of the future.  

Q: How did you develop a vision for the grid 10-15 years from now?

Sharon: Knowing that our customers’ requirements of the grid of the future are much more complex than in the past, we took a different approach to developing this five-year plan and longer-term vision for the distribution grid. We started with the planning objectives of providing safe, clean, reliable and affordable energy that is accessible to all of our customers. We then looked at energy trends and developed three scenarios that describe what might happen in the future: high electrification, increasing severe weather and high adoption of distributed generation and storage. Each scenario reflects potential future outcomes to help identify strengths and weaknesses of our current distribution system. They also provide guidance on future investment needs. 

Q: What will the plan achieve for DTE’s customers?

Sharon: The plan will help us provide our customers with the safe, reliable and affordable energy they deserve. The continued investment and infrastructure updates outlined in our updated plan will help us realize a 60% improvement in the average amount of time customers are without power.

Modernizing infrastructure will also make the grid more resilient to the increasingly severe weather that is impacting Michigan. This will help to significantly reduce reactive costs — a projected $65 million annually by 2025 — and time spent on outages caused by equipment failures and weather. Our experience shows that reactive equipment replacements due to failures can cost up to five times as much as proactive replacement programs.

We’ll also continue our Enhanced Tree Trimming Program that, on average, is resulting in 60% fewer outages, shorter outage durations and fewer wire downs and safety hazards.

New technology and additional capacity will accommodate new load growth that will flex and grow with customers’ expectations for the grid of the future.

 Q: Can you explain how the plan will improve reliability and resiliency, especially during severe weather?

Sharon: The plan focuses on two key areas:

  • Trimming trees along power lines: Tree trimming is the single largest driver in addressing the safety, reliability and storm resiliency of DTE’s energy grid. Fallen trees and branches are responsible for 50% of the time our customers spend without power.
  • Hardening the infrastructure: Poles, wires, insulators and other equipment are susceptible to damage caused by tree limbs, strong winds, ice, heat and other accidents. In addition to causing outages for our customers, pole and pole top equipment failures lead to costly reactive work. To respond to this challenge, we’ve strengthened our standards. We’re increasing investments in our PTMM Program, inspecting and upgrading thousands of utility poles throughout our service territory. As examples, we’re replacing wood cross arms with stronger fiberglass cross arms, installing stronger insulators and upgrading our sub-transmission system poles to steel. The investments in this program will improve customer reliability and help manage emergent costs.

Q: How is DTE preparing for increased demands of electricity?

Sharon: We’re building new substations and upgrading existing substations. This will add higher voltage transformers, increase wire sizes, include more modern equipment that optimizes voltage and will also add capacity to support the increasing power needs of our customers. 

Q: Can you provide examples of technology that DTE is incorporating?

Sharon: We’re incorporating a high-tech distribution management system. Using data from smart meters and grid sensors allows us to know the health of the electric system in real time. It also lets us flag and correct equipment problems before an outage occurs and learn about outages instantaneously. In addition, we’re installing equipment called sectionalizing and switching devices. The equipment will limit the number of customers impacted by an outage by isolating the fault on the system. Most customers can be restored quickly while the damage is repaired.

Q: What is the most exciting part of the new grid plan?

Sharon: This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our grid into the reliable, resilient grid we want for our customers — one that can support electric vehicles and decarbonization.