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Power companies plan ahead for extreme conditions

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena Power Company Vice-President Matt Cameron explains how a substation in Alpena operates. There are a pair of transformers that reduces the level of power coming to it, before redistributing it into the community, and ultimately into people’s homes. The company said power can go out if an issue with a transformer surfaces, or bad weather causes power lines or poles to collapse.

ALPENA– Michiganders often endure winter weather that mirrors or exceeds what the state of Texas experienced earlier this week.

Because of the commonality of heavy snow, high winds, and below zero temperatures, the area’s power infrastructure is designed to withstand the brutal weather, and continue to provide electrical service to customers.

A pair of rare winter storms with low wind chills and heavy snow battered Texas and caused some power plants to fail or shut down. Wind turbines, which produce clean-energy, also froze, which led to a shortage of power to meet demand.

Planned rolling blackouts were implemented to millions of customers to preserve power, but many people lost power for days, and lost their source of heat.

Alpena Power Company purchases all of its power from Consumers Energy and resells it to its customers.

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena Power Company Vice-President Matt Cameron shows off the inventory of large power poles at the company’s storage facility. The poles are capable of withstanding large amounts of pressure, but at times can be brought down due to severe weather.

Because Alpena Power, who services about 16,000 customers, doesn’t produce its own electricity, it depends on Consumers’ system to operate as designed to avoid power shortages and outages.

Consumers Director of Media Relations Katie Carey said the key to making sure the system operates dependably is planning during the construction phase, and making adjustments as weather conditions change.

She said currently, 33% of the power produced by Consumers is from coal, and 26% is from natural gas. Carey said the company stockpiles the needed commodities before winter, which helps ensure supply meets demand.

“We plan for extreme conditions,” she said. “We fill up our storage fields with natural gas in the summer, so we can meet demand in the winter. We know what winter is like in Michigan. We do our best to prepare for high demand, no matter if it is for hot or cold temperatures.”

Carey said the company currently produces 11% of its energy production from renewable energy sources, including wind. She said the turbines the company owns are heavy duty and can dependably operate well below the freezing mark.

“They operate in temperatures that go down to -22 degrees, and if it is colder, we can reduce power from them,” Carey said. “But really, they can survive temperatures all the way down to -40 degrees.”

She added Consumers will incorporate more renewable energy into its portfolio in the future.

If there is a power outage in the Alpena area, it’s likely because either power lines are down, or a transformer failed.

Alpena Power Company President/COO Gary Graham said residents generally lose power during or after storms with high winds, or heavy snow and ice. He said power poles, wires, and transformers hold their own against severe storms, but at times power goes out, but normally for not long.

“If you get the wet, sticky, heavy snow or ice on trees they can come down on power lines and there are power losses,” Graham said. “Strong wind during powerful thunderstorms can also knock out power the same way.”

The power company clears trees and limbs away from powerlines frequently to limit the number of power interruptions from them falling.

Graham said the company dispatches repair crews when it is safe too, but if there are temperatures below zero, or lightning in the area, repairs are put on hold.

He said in his 30 years with Alpena Power, a recent storm is the one that forced people to go without power the longest. He said the snowstorm in December that dropped over a foot of wet snow, and had high winds, left people without power for a lengthy stretch, especially customers who live in more rural areas.

“There were people who went three days, and some, who lived further out in the unpopulated areas, that went four days,” he said. “When there is a power outage, we have to prioritize where power is restored first. If there is an area that has a bunch of hunting camps that nobody is at, they will be toward the last to get their service back.”

Graham said, most times, when power goes out, it’s in an isolated area, and crews are able to restore it quickly.

Presque Isle Electric and Gas Co-op provides power to 35,000 customers in some areas of northern Michigan. As a cooperative, it is able to self regulate, but follows regulations established by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Director of Communications Marie Chagnon-Hazelman said power outages are not uncommon in after storms, but added people in Michigan’s homes are capable of suffering through them more efficiently.

She said homes in the area are designed with more insulation than those in Texas, and the piping isn’t installed in ceilings, which is common in warm weather states.

She said the MPSC has set a standard that when 10% of customers lose power, it is considered a catastrophic failure. She said that happens from time to time and her crew jumps into action.

“Our guys go out there come hell or high water,” she said. “They are sympathetic to the people because they don’t want to see them in the cold. I really feel for the people in Texas.”

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