When you think of energy providers and power restoration, you likely think of lineworkers and bucket trucks. While that’s true, there are hundreds of behind-the-scenes employees – from dispatch to forestry to system control – who are dedicated to keeping the lights on for our customers.
It’s not just boots on the dry ground doing the work. Some of our coworkers are navigating a military-like precision vehicle through Michigan’s waters. A few are flying in a helicopter to inspect power lines. Some are operating drones to locate downed wires and other potential issues.
Our crews are keeping the power on from the air, land and water. And with Mother Nature becoming increasingly more unpredictable, these tools and methods will continue to help us strengthen the electric grid and deliver on the ambitious goals in our Reliability Roadmap.
“The tools and technology we have available now compared to 20-25 years ago really is unreal,” said Jerry Gates, a lineworker in charge and a company veteran for 27 years. He also drives the amphibious machine when a crew goes into areas where bucket trucks can’t reach, especially on lakes and ponds. “We have come so far, and there’s no limit to where can go from here.”
With the enjoyment of having thousands of lakes and ponds in Michigan also comes the responsibility of replacing poles, transformers, cross arms and other equipment that help power the properties close to them.
That’s where our 6,000-pound amphibious machine comes in. The unique-looking machine seems to draw a crowd wherever it goes and is key in replacing poles directly in the water that are broken, aging or no longer functioning.
Since using a bucket truck is out of the question, a member of the crew must scale the pole to determine any damage. If a pole replacement is necessary, equipment that can move through water, such as a flex track, will be brought in later.
When it comes to aerial inspections of our infrastructure, we also have that covered through our helicopter and dozens of specialized drones.
High voltage line outages affect 25 times more customers per incident than low voltage line outages, making it a primary focus for this crew and the rest of our reliability team.
Tommy Webb, Senior Engineer Tech Analyst, and the rest of the helicopter crew saved about 154,000 customers in 2022 from experiencing an outage, which equates to about 27 million minutes of outage time.
The crew performs routine flyovers to help crews identify issues right away. The chopper is also used for damage assessment in the aftermath of major storms.
“Everyone has their role. We know the importance of working together to help our customers get the reliable service that they depend on us for every day,” Webb said of the reliability cause.
One team they work closely with is the drone support team, a group of 30 drone operators led by Ben Strandskov.
“We work in tandem with our helicopter crew to get to tough places crews aren’t able to,” Strandskov said. “That includes about 400 miles of lines they can’t get to for reasons including thick brush and helicopters not being allowed in the area.”
They also proactively identify signs of equipment damage on devices, such as Automatic Transfer Reclosers (ATRs).
Most of the work our crews perform still takes place above ground. But we continue to explore new ways to improve our reliability, including burying our electric lines.
Fallen trees or broken limbs are the leading cause of outages in Michigan. That’s why we are investing more than $600 million over the next five years to make sure our customers have reliable service by keeping our distribution lines clear. Traditional tree trimming and overhead linework will also continue to be at the forefront of our reliability endeavors.
Cleveland Reid, a lineworker, said it is critical to work together and step up our reliability performance.
“We all have a role in helping move the company forward,” Reid said. “Having high standards will help us in our mission to gain customer trust by doing everything we can to keep their power on, but if a storm does hit, we will safely go to any lengths to get it back on.”