The crippling ice storm that caused power outages for over 500,000 mid-Michigan people during Christmas week affected about 20,450 served by electric co-ops. Co-ops affected most were HomeWorks Tri-County and Thumb Electric, although over 5,000 Great Lakes Energy members were also without power.
“At peak, we estimate that over 10,000 of our members were out of power,” says HomeWorks’ General Manager Mark Kappler. The storm began on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 21, with freezing rain that left 1 to 3 inches of ice on power lines and trees before sweeping into Canada. The Lansing State Journal reported it as the area’s worst in nearly 30 years.
“In many areas, our team acted as first responders because many roads we needed to travel to reach the power lines were made impassible by ice, downed tree limbs, and other debris,” Kappler explains. “In many cases, we opened up the roads.” Early-on, the co-op had circuits served by 13 substations affected by the heavy ice, but most members had power restored by Dec. 27. HomeWorks received mutual aid from Cherryland, Great Lakes, Midwest and Wolverine Power cooperatives.
About 5,000 of Thumb Electric’s 12,000-plus members were affected. “Luckily, we did not have any transmission or substation problems, and all power was restored by Friday,” reports General Manager Dallas Braun. Remaining crews began again early Saturday to continue clean-up and prepare for more outages due to warmer temperatures expected throughout the night. An additional 450 outages were repaired by late Saturday. “This ice storm was unique for a couple reasons,” Braun adds. First, the ice hung on for a week before letting go, and the accumulation built-up on the trees and wires was the heaviest their operations supervisor had seen in nearly 35 years. “As the ice hung on, we were very fortunate not to get the gusty winds that were predicted during restoration.” Thumb had 29 employees and an additional 55 lineman and tree trimmers helping. Mutual aid came from Cloverland, Presque Isle Electric & Gas, and Frontier (Ohio) co-ops, plus four municipal utilities and three tree and line service companies. As they worked, crews also had to watch for ice chunks falling from the lines and trees.
Severe outages in the Consumers Energy and DTE areas left some without power for nearly two weeks after the storm. Many of the last outages repaired were reconnects due to service damage (many awaiting an electrician) or in areas requiring special equipment. In the Lansing area, many retail businesses, including major malls, were without power or relied on generators to stay open for holiday shoppers. Lansing’s Board of Water & Light itself had at least 40,000 without power and received a lot of public criticism about their outdated plans for communicating outage information.
Kappler noted how blessed the co-ops are to have the support of their entire communities. “In addition to our ‘cooperative network’ of mutual aid and tree crews,” Kappler noted, office employees and family members brought in food and delivered it to the field crews, co-op members brought hot coffee and cocoa to the crews, and local businesses extended their hours to accommodate the workforce. Hundreds of co-op members also posted words of praise and encouragement on Facebook.”
The co-ops are thankful for the hard work and dedication of all their employees that helped with the restoration effort, but especially those who postponed or cancelled their Christmas plans in order to serve their members.