WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI - It’s not unusual for Chris Justice to be sitting at his desk in his home office about a 15-minute drive outside Ann Arbor speaking with his manager when it happens.
“It will be 10 in the morning sunny, no issues, and the power’s out,” he said.
For Justice and his wife Ingrid, who live on a leafy property two miles south of Dexter, outages have become the norm, rain or shine. They’ve clocked 18 interruptions in their DTE Energy electrical service in the past year, and that was before storms rolled through on Thursday night, Aug. 24, again briefly knocking out power.
It’s not just them. The couple can frequently see a triangular area around their home in Lima Township on DTE’s outage map.
“It’s kind of like this Bermuda Triangle circuit of crap,” Chris Justice said.
Their experience, which they say has only worsened in recent years, adds to a chorus of questions over DTE’s reliability in the Ann Arbor area, where blackouts have fried appliances, spoiled food and even been cited as the reason businesses fold, rankling residents and elected leaders alike.
The state’s largest utility has told Ann Arbor officials to expect in the coming years a “dramatically different grid,” hardened against widespread outages through millions in infrastructure upgrades, tree-trimming and automation.
A DTE spokesperson didn’t respond to questions from MLive/The Ann Arbor News about the Justices’ outages.
Chris Justice said he has a routine of submitting complaints to the Michigan Public Service Commission each time the lights blink out at his home. But they get kicked to DTE, he said, and the response is far from satisfying.
“DTE invariably gaslights us, and they’ll just say the reason you lose power is because the trees need trimming and the weather’s bad,” he said. That’s understandable during massive ice storms or powerful thunder cells, Justice said. But their outages, ranging from several hours to several days, happen as well on clear days with 5 mph winds, he said.
It wasn’t always this way.
The couple moved to their home about 18 years ago, and for the first decade they might have had an outage a year, Justice said, usually related to the occasional “nasty thunderstorm.”
When the outages picked up in frequency beginning six or seven years ago, the couple bought a portable generator, wheeling it out when they needed to keep the blower motor going on their furnace during the winter.
Now, the problem has accelerated, with 24 outages in the past 14 months, Ingrid Justice said. They splurged on a whole-home generator system.
“We’re privileged we could go out and buy the big generator because you can’t even go on vacation now because the power might go out,” Ingrid Justice said. Leaving home for a winter trip to Florida or another warm destination brings with it worries about pipes freezing or pets left behind. “We felt like we had to go out and get one,” she said.
Still, wildly oscillating voltage has twice blown transfer switches in the system since they installed it in February, the couple said.
Neighbors in the “Bermuda Triangle” stretching east and halfway to Chelsea experience the same, Chris Justice said, recounting a recent conversation he had with one who was forced to reschedule a surgery, not wanting to recover in the dark.
He theorizes the repeated blackouts could have to do with the number of large homes with horse barns built in the area in recent years, drawing more power from the aging grid, but has no way to confirm the hypothesis and said DTE doesn’t provide that kind of detail.
“That’s the sort of transparency that you lack here. If that is a problem, they won’t say that it is,” he said.
For now, they’ve settled into a routine of tracking the outages and shooting out complaints to official entities like the Public Service Commission, Michigan Governor’s Office, Attorney General’s Office and their federal representatives.
Their son married a Nigerian woman, and her parents talked about living in Lagos, where they said blackouts were the norm. “We pointed to the generator out behind the barn, like don’t hold your breath, it could kick on tonight yet,” Chris Justice said.
They expect better from their utility.
“Between climate change and decaying infrastructure, DTE needs to step up,” Ingrid Justice said.
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