(Crystal A. Proxmire, Ferndale 115 News Wire, 9/28/2011)
Representatives from DTE are blaming a failed breaker for the massive power outage that left many in Ferndale without power for three days beginning July 20, 2011.
Residents had concerns over the equipment failure, and the City had invited them to speak at a special City Council meeting on September 28. “It was unclear, frankly, just what was going on with the infrastructure here in Ferndale. I’ve asked the folks at DTE to provide some kind of analysis,” said Mayor Dave Coulter as he introduced DTE representative Michael Palchesko and DTE Supervising Engineer Ron Gerkin.
As the DTE representatives gave a very technical and detailed explanation of the equipment failure, members of council and the public tried to understand how this happened and what DTE will do to serve customers better in the future.
According to a timeline presented by Palchesko and Gerkin, a breaker malfunctioned in the Ferndale substation, starting a domino effect of outages and problems that led to a fault in Royal Oak. Power was out for days as they struggled to find and repair the break, finally coming back on at 5:50 in the morning of July 23.
“It’s like in your house. If you have a lamp that shorts out and the circuit breaker doesn’t work it goes on and your whole house circuit breaker fails,” said Palchesko. This happened on a much larger scale in July, when entire sections of the electrical grid in Ferndale and surrounding cities were off so that repairs could be made.
Councilperson Melanie Piana tried to summarize the technical explanations, and asked if there was anything more to the breaker failure than just “an oops.”
Palchesko said he did not know the specific reason for the breaker failure. Nor did he know the specific reason for the main fault in Royal Oak, only that their best guess is that a connector overheated after the Ferndale breaker failed.
Wires and cables all have a set level of energy they are able to safely carry. This is called their load rating. “It’s based on the temperature and what it does to the cables. If the heat goes too high it can degrade the cable or any piece of equipment,” he said. That is likely what happened on the 20th.
It then took several days to fix the power problem, because the break had to be located and the old cables had to be removed and replaced.
In response to concerns over future equipment failure, Palchesko gave some long-term improvements that DTE says they are working on. Listed ideas were: doing more inspections, doing a study to “identify opportunities to minimize impact of outages,” “prepare for alternative supply” by preparing the Ferndale substation for a portable substation and for a two megawatt generator, and identifying property for a future substation to relieve load on the Ferndale and Hazel Park circuits.
Ferndale is served by five substations. The Ferndale Substation at 9 Mile and Livernois has been the most problematic. Ten years ago an explosion and fire ravaged the facility and major repairs and replacements took place. This was also the site of the failed breaker. The Ferndale substation was built in 1952. The Oak Park substation was built in 1954. Woodside was 1947, Lincoln 1929, and Hazel Park 1927.
Palchesko pointed out that although a lot of the equipment is old, that doesn’t necessarily make it more likely to fail. “We have cables in the ground that were put in in 1918,” he said. “In the 1900s and 1920s the cable was over built back then.” He said that old cables are made of copper. But newer cables are made of aluminum.
Councilperson Scott Galloway asked the representatives to explain why cities such as Auburn Hills had substations with higher capacities and different equipment than substations in Ferndale and it’s immediate neighbors. The DTE representative addressed this by saying that newer facilities were designed to service larger areas and new development. He said that expanding capacity at the Ferndale substation had been considered, but that the property is too small and closed in to accommodate more equipment.
DTE is looking into adding a sixth substation in Ferndale, which would alleviate some of the stress on the current equipment, and give increased capacity for the anticipated redevelopment of the State Fair Grounds and surrounding areas, Palchesko said.
Another issue addressed at the special meeting was that of communication. Without power many residents could not access radio, TV, phones or internet. Residents with internet access were stunned as day-to-day the DTE website told them power would be on by 8pm, and each day the estimate creeped forward one more day.
Councilperson Kate Baker explained that having a reasonable estimate is important to residents and business owners. She suggested that DTE “aim high and come in low,” rather than leaving residents wondering why the power is still out.
Palchesko said that it can be hard to know how long power restoration can take, and that until DTE knows what is wrong it is their policy to tell residents that it will be one more day. “If we put on the website that it will be four days, a lot of people won’t be happy,” Palchesko said. He admitted that if people knew it would be days it would give them more time to prepare, to find others with freezers, get dry ice, seek temporary housing elsewhere, plan their business etc. He said that DTE is looking for ways to improve the estimates they give.
As far as suggestions for how to communicate better with residents who do not have power, DTE did not have any that weren’t technology-based. They rely on their website and telephone communication. The City of Ferndale is currently in the process of examining emergency communications, and recently started a “Go to where you vote to get your note” program. This means that if the power goes out or there is some major emergency, City representatives will post information at all of the polling locations for residents.
The meeting gave residents a chance to share their experiences through the power outage and to ask questions of DTE. Representatives took contact information from all residents who complained so they can follow up.
For more information about DTE, including how to file a damage claim, go to http://www.dteenergy.com. Their presentation, including a more technical timeline, will be available on the City of Ferndale website at www.ferndale-mi.com.