Consumers Energy gets OK to bury power lines in 6 Michigan counties: What it means

State regulators on Friday signed off on a plan for Jackson-based Consumers Energy to begin burying about 10 miles of power lines in six Michigan counties over the next year, with the goal of improving the reliability of electric service by shielding the wires from inclement weather, falling tree branches and other hazards that could result in lost power for customers.

The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) approved Consumers' pilot to spend $3.7 million to bury power lines, a process known as undergrounding, in six Michigan counties: Genesee, Livingston, Allegan, Ottawa, Montcalm, and Iosco. The pilot plan was included in an approved application for Consumers to raise its electric rates by $92 million, a $1.53 increase to the average monthly bill for a typical residential customer. The cost of the pilot program is directly paid for by the electric rate increase, according to a company spokesperson.

In total, 10.3 miles of power lines will be buried. That's a sliver of the over 1,000 miles of power lines Consumers hopes to bury as part of its "Reliability Roadmap" five-year plan unveiled last September.

Severe thunderstorms left more than 100,000 customers across Michigan without power, utilities reported Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. Consumers Energy received approval on Friday, March 1, 2024, to bury around 10 miles of electric lines underground, something the company says will improve reliability for customers as the power lines are shielded from inclement weather.

In a regulatory filing, staff for the MPSC noted Friday the pilot program for the first 10 miles will allow the company to evaluate the best path forward to continue burying power lines. By burying power lines, the wires will be protected from common outage causes, like lightning, high winds, tornadoes, heavy snow, ice and falling tree limbs, according to Consumers. In a previous regulatory filing, Consumers said research indicates undergrounding power lines improves circuit performance by 90% or more.

“Burying power lines will help make the grid stronger and more reliable,” Greg Salisbury, Consumers Energy’s vice president of electric distribution engineering, said in a news release Monday.“This pilot will help us learn even more about cost-effective ways to bury lines, allowing us to expand undergrounding projects in the future.”

A company spokesperson said over email the road map commits to burying 1,035 miles of power lines over five years for a total cost of $414 million, subject to approval from state regulators.

Initially, Consumers had estimated it would cost $400,000 per mile of power line in the pilot, but the MPSC ultimately approved a 10% reduction of that estimate, leading to a $3.7 million cost for the pilot, according to the commission's approval of the electric rate increase application.

Consumers indicated it may perform an additional 11.3 miles of undergrounding in the future, according to the MPSC, although that portion did not receive regulatory approval Friday.

Both Consumers and Michigan's other largest electric provider, Detroit-based DTE Energy, have ranked among the worst-performing utilities nationally when it comes to how long it takes them to restore power after an outage, according to a review of reliability data. DTE has also undergrounded power lines in Michigan, with one project last year burying lines in Detroit's Davison and Buffalo-Charles neighborhoods.

When the company unveiled its Reliability Roadmap in September, Consumers officials said it wants to continue trimming trees with branches hanging over aboveground power lines, undergrounding more power lines, replacing outdated electric poles and continuing to automate parts of its electric grid where it can.

The plans to improve reliability will have to be approved by the MPSC in future electric rate cases, like the one approved Friday.

Consumers provides electric service to 1.8 million customers in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, including cities such as Battle Creek, Flint, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Before the MPSC approved a $92 million electric rate increase Friday, the company had initially requested a $216 million rate increase, a request that was later reduced to $170.8 million.

Free Press staff writer Adrienne Roberts contributed with prior reporting.

Contact Arpan Lobo: Follow him on X (Twitter) @arpanlobo.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Consumers Energy gets OK to bury power lines in 6 Michigan counties