Detroit power outage was a disaster 50 years in the making

DETROIT – Most major American cities have neglected their power grid, and are suffering the consequences. But few have let their systems degrade like Detroit's Department of Public Lighting.

For over a century PLD has generated and distributed power to 100 customers, representing a variety of 1,400 public-sector buildings throughout the city. A few years ago it got out of the power generation business and started buying electricity instead from DTE. Eighteen months ago, with the city in the throes of financial collapse, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr examined the financial investment necessary to upgrade the system to contemporary standards and decided to abandon ship.

DTE inherited this basket-case and now faces the unenviable task of bringing it into the 21st century.

There has been no significant investment in system upgrades in the last 40 years. We've all had homes or cars that became money pits. The PLD's grid is no different.

It wasn't just a lack of resources, it was a lack of will. Former directors wanted to invest in the necessary upgrades--to buy a new set of tires, so to speak--but instead were told, again and again over a nearly half-century, to patch what they had instead.

Here's the dirty little secret. PLD was not operated like a normal utility. They did not retain independent control over their own revenues from their giant customers. Revenues from municipal electric bills went into the city's general fund.

PLD directors were then forced to beg for their own money back--watching it diverted to competing city services instead of being reinvested into the public utility.

Instead of building a capital budget for the future, PLD leaders saw the money spent on new cops and garbage trucks. Granted, that may have seemed like a higher priority given Detroit's mammoth needs and dwindling resources, but those decisions created a dim future for public lighting.

DTE has spent the last 18 months inspecting the PLD system, determining where to start, and how much it will cost. They've already tried to address reliability issues for Detroit's schools, but they only started July 1.

It's expected that it will take $200 million and four years to complete the DTE takeover. They will abandon all the old PLD equipment and install their own. It may mean more downtown traffic disruptions, but DTE leadership is convinced it will end what have seemingly been bi-annual blackouts.

Those changes can't come soon enough.