In 2010, Josh Martin and other members of the Distribution Standards Team were brainstorming ideas to make service safer, cleaner, more affordable and reliable for customers.

They landed on Automatic Transfer Reclosers (ATRs), 800 pound-devices mounted 25 feet high on our electric poles that are playing a major role in our electric reliability future.

This year, we plan on installing 123 new ATRs to help prevent power outages and improve electric reliability for our customers. Our investment in automation is a key part of our overall electric reliability plan aimed to reduce both the number and length of power outages. The majority of the 2023 ATRs are expected to be complete and online this summer.

“When we first started almost 13 years ago, we were looking for a solution where we didn’t have to worry about getting radio signals into rural areas,” said Martin, who now works for the Grid Modernization Department, adding with vegetation and brush blocking signals, the traditional ‘smart grid’ equipment wasn’t working. “We arrived at ATRs that sense an outage and reroute the power to automatically restore customers.”

After benchmarking with other energy providers, the team hit the ground running. The company continues to invest in the grid to increase safety, prevent outages, and better serve customers, including $15 million budgeted annually for ATRs.

The oldest original ATR pilot located north of Kalamazoo still operates today providing major benefits during outages.

In 2015, the company ramped up the use of ATRs. As of April 1, we have about 470 on our system.

It’s all part of a larger $5.4 billion electric reliability plan, a five-year blueprint for serving Michigan’s grid today while preparing for future challenges. The plan, which entails infrastructure upgrades, forestry management and grid modernization, projects a 15% improvement in reliability performance.

After more than a decade, the big idea is delivering even bigger results.

“ATRs – sometimes referred to as the traffic light of the power grid – are one of many valuable tools that help reduce the number of outages our customers face,” said Chris Laird, vice president of electric operations.  “The ATRs are programmed to detect power loss and follow predetermined actions to help reroute power in another direction. We remain committed to doing more to update the grid and make it work better for our customers.”

“We started small and kept steadily increasing ATR deployment,” Martin said. “We recently hit our original goal of having ATRs on 10% of our system and will continue putting them up. There is no sign of us stopping since our customers benefit greatly from these self-healing systems.”

Over the years, we have developed a meticulous planning method to ensure new ATRs are strategically placed on circuits to maximize customer benefit.

“That also helps crews and dispatch to really focus on other areas during a major storm,” Martin said. “They have been a great equalizer for storms that hit Michigan.”

In 2022, we have saved our customers from over 16 million outage minutes thanks to ATRs, which averages nine minutes of avoided outage time for each of our 1.8 million customers. In total during the same timeframe, ATRs prevented more than 55,000 customer outages – including 6,200 businesses.

After the February ice storms, we recognize that customers are asking for a stronger and smarter power grid. And we will deliver.

“By focusing on tree trimming, upgrading our electric grid, and using automation and other technology to quickly detect and resolve problems, we can drastically improve the electric grid and make it more reliable for all our customers,” Laird said.

Martin said emergent reliability technology is constantly evolving to fit customers’ needs.

“We are passionate about providing safe, reliable, affordable and clean energy to our customers,” said Martin. “A lot has changed in the last 13 years, and I am excited to see how we are providing service to our customers 13 years from now.”