Original Story: usatoday.com
The power failure that plunged Detroit's schools, fire stations, traffic signals and public buildings into darkness Tuesday reflects a larger problem of aging electrical infrastructure around the country that has worried experts for years.
The chaos of unexpected power loss is all too familiar for people who work in downtown Detroit. Its aging municipal system was responsible for major power failures that caused blackouts in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
But the problem is not isolated to one city. A series of federal and private studies raise alarm bells about the power distribution system nationally, saying it is plagued by aging equipment with high failure rates, obsolete system structures and outdated engineering.
The American Society of Civil Engineers and several top Michigan colleges are concerned with the recent evaluation of the nation's power infrastructure which was graded a D+, saying some elements of the interconnected transmission and distribution systems, including 400,000 miles of electric lines, date to the 1880s and much to World War II era.
"Aging equipment has resulted in an increasing number of intermittent power disruptions, as well as vulnerability to cyber attacks,'' the group said in its report.
It said the number of significant power outages around the country rose from 76 in 2007 to 307 in 2011. While weather was the cause of some, including the 2012 blackout in New York City, many transmission and distribution systems have suffered failures.
Modernizing sources of energy have played a role, too, the group said. "Reliability issues are also emerging due to the complex process of rotating in new energy sources and retiring older infrastructure,'' it said.
In Detroit as elsewhere, the stumbling block is cost.
A series of reports by international consultants McKinsey & Co., commissioned in 2010, determined that the city's municipal power system needed $250 million in repairs, the Detroit Free Press reports.
In fact, since the nearly insolvent city shuttered its power generating plant in 2010, its public power system has been purchasing electricity from the utility. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr says that over the past five years, public lighting has cost the city about $150 million a year, the Free Press reported.
The largest blackout in U.S. history was on Aug. 14, 2003, when 50 million people were left in the dark after downed trees in Ohio landed on power lines, starting a ripple effect that would be felt across the Great Lakes area and the Northeast.
The cause of the Detroit failure isn't clear yet, but an official with the American Public Power Association, which represents 2,000 utilities serving 47 million people, said engineers routinely monitor the reliability and maintenance of their systems to avoid outages.
"Are aging lines a major concern everywhere? No," said Michael Hyland, vice president of engineering and operations for the association. "I would not label it and say we have a big problem."
But a 2011 report by the international insurer Allianz concluded: "The power blackout risk is generally underestimated. Blackouts during the last ten years in Europe and Northern America have demonstrated an increasing likelihood of supra-regional and long-lasting blackouts including high economical losses. Due to the increasing interconnectedness in combination with rather old infrastructure we expect this risk to increase in both frequency and severity.''
For the people who suffer the consequences, such as those who live in Detroit, there isn't a lot to be done.
"We don't get excited about this, we're used to these kinds of things. We just deal with it," Lynda Gray, who works at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, told WXYZ-TV.
The city is in the process of turning over its old Detroit Public Lighting grid to the private utility company, DTE Energy, that serves the area and has been selling power to Detroit's municipal system.
Mayor Mike Duggan says the power grid hasn't been modernized in decades in Detroit, which is emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Most power was restored by Tuesday night, according to DTE Energy. Non-public buiildings were not affected.