The Electrical Worker online
February 2015

Motown's Energy Makeover
IBEW Overhauls Detroit's Electrical Grid
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Detroit went dark the morning of Dec. 2, when a faulty cable caused power outages at federal buildings, courthouses and schools throughout the city — including at major institutions like Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings.

The culprit: a century-old, city-run power grid that hasn't been updated in decades.

One of the few city buildings not to lose power was Bates Academy, an academic magnet school for elementary and middle school students in the Northwest section of the city.

The lights stayed on at Bates because it received an energy makeover last summer thanks to the IBEW and the DTE, the main electric utility for Southeastern Michigan. Members replaced aged equipment and plugged it into DTE's more modern grid in time for the school year.

Bates was the first school transitioned under a new $200 million modernization project that will bring Detroit's electrical infrastructure into the 21st century. And making it happen — building by building — are members of Detroit Local 17.

"The system here is in really bad shape," said Local 17 Business Manager Dean Bradley. "We're talking about a system that's over 100 years old."

Archaic System

For more than a century, Detroit's electrical and transmission needs were provided directly through the city's Public Lighting Department.

Most residential homes and apartments are plugged into DTE's grid, but the majority of public buildings and many large commercial and industrial facilities — 1,400 in all — relied on Detroit's municipal utility for their electricity.

But as the city went into economic decline, the power system suffered along with it. Deindustrialization and suburban flight deprived the city of its tax base, which in turn starved the department of needed maintenance and investment funds.

Utility payments went straight into the city's general account, and as the city spiraled toward bankruptcy over the last decade, money collected by the PLD went to patch up budget holes elsewhere.

Infrastructure in many parts of the city is 50 years or older, while the maintenance and line staff declined from a high of about 700 to a skeleton crew of less than 30 a few years ago, Bradley said.

Energy consultants McKinsey & Co. found in a 2010 study that the municipal power system needed at least $250 million in repairs to bring it up to date.

As a result, power outages became a way of life for city residents, with the city suffering major failures on a nearly yearly basis.

No one has been hit harder by that than Detroit's public school students.

Detroit Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowsky says that Detroit students missed an aggregate of 260 days of school in 2013 due to power outages.

"It really gets in the way of the continuity of instruction," she said. In 2013, Bates students alone missed 12 days of school because of blackouts.

Getting Out of the Power Business

The popping of the housing bubble in 2007 and the subsequent recession hit Detroit exceptionally hard, drying up revenue and squeezing the city's already overextended budget.

A city that was laying off teachers and taking cops off the streets was in no position to finance a multimillion dollar investment in its electrical system.

Lawmakers began making moves to get out of the power business in 2010, closing the city's generating plant and inking a contract to get power directly from DTE.

In 2013, just weeks before Detroit declared bankruptcy, officials announced their intentions to wind down the PLD for good, entering into a long-term partnership with DTE to modernize the grid and eventually turn over all city power operations to the utility.

"The 100-year old PLD system has not received any investment in nearly a decade, and the City of Detroit has been operating it a loss for some time," said Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to oversee the bankruptcy process. "Exiting the electric business and letting a recognized expert such as DTE run it is a sensible course of action to take."

Building by Building, Block by Block

Revamping the entire electrical system for a city the size of the Detroit is a daunting undertaking. The system has more than 30 substations, 500 miles of underground cable, 1,500 miles of overhead lines, and approximately 62,000 utility poles — all of which need to be replaced and rebuilt.

TMC is the signatory contractor overseeing the project.

"Cooperation and a good relationship between DTE, TMC, and Local 17 is paramount to our success," Bradley said.

DTE has already replaced existing PLD meters with DTE smart meters. The next stage of the project — which started last July — involves switching out old, and in most cases, decaying equipment with brand new cables, poles and transformers at public buildings and connecting them to the DTE grid.

More than 80 IBEW members are doing the work, many of whom are former PLD employees.

"We're tapping into the native talent," Bradley said. "People who know the city and system."

For smaller facilities, the transfer process usually takes a day or two. DTE provides TMC a load profile of the building, which measures electrical use over time. Workers go in, disconnect the power, install new breakers, crossarms or whatever new equipment is needed, and then switch the building onto DTE's grid.

"We're working with the city to identify the schools and other facilities in the worst shape and start there," Bradley said.

Local 17 members are working "hot" throughout most of the process, meaning the lines are still energized, making safety a priority.

"Our folks are the best when it comes to working safe, which is one reason the work is being done by the IBEW," Bradley said.

An additional 100 members are also at work replacing 65,000 street lights throughout the city with energy-saving LED bulbs that shine twice as brightly as the old ones.

The Public Lighting Authority of Detroit, a state authority created in 2013 to modernize the street lights, says it is approximately halfway there, with more than 30,000 new street lights installed to date.

The new lights will cut down on theft and vandalism by switching from copper to aluminum wiring, and by putting each one on a separate circuit, will avoid multiple outrages on a single block.

Modernizing the grid is step one in attracting new business and residents to a city just emerging from bankruptcy and looking to make itself once again a center of American industry.

"We're bringing Detroit's energy system into this century, and we're glad to be part of it," Bradley said.


Detroit's antiquated electrical system is joining the 21st century, thanks to the skilled members of the IBEW.




Members of Detroit Local 17 are modernizing the city's electrical infrastructure — building by building