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Consumers Energy uses helicopter to find potential issues with electrical grid

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Posted at 10:27 PM, Apr 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-29 23:22:26-04

KALAMAZOO COUNTY, Mich — Consumers Energy is being proactive ahead of severe weather this year. Friday, FOX 17 got an exclusive look at that work.

They're about a month into surveying any potential problems in our state's electrical grid. Over the next month, you might see them out.

In a helicopter, a three-person crew checks over 4,300 miles of power lines in Michigan. They're looking for loose connections, overgrown trees and infrastructure problems.

Consumers Energy says the method saves time and money. The helicopter crew stopped in Kalamazoo County to check over 25 miles of lines Friday.

This crew of two, along with myself and Josh Paciorek with Consumers Energy, are looking for any potential issues that could become major problems.

"Right now, it's hard to find these danger trees because there are no leaves on the tree, so they all look the same," Tommy Webb said over the intercom.

It wasn't long into our trip when we spotted our first problem.

"Right now, we are sitting at 100 feet and now he's able to get pictures of it. So, I think at the end of the cross arm there is a split."

So, Webb and Ryder Boss, the pilot, documented the issue and informed Consumers Energy.

"Being able to see what potential problems there so we can be proactive in fixing them so it doesn't result in an outage, and that's a frustrating experience," Paciorek said.

Over the next couple of weeks, this crew will be traveling across the state in that helicopter. You might see them flying low to survey Consumers' electrical lines and stations.

"If we were to do it by ground, we would have doubled, tripled the number of people; it would take us even longer. It takes us about 50 days to inspect the entire system. If we're doing that by ground, I mean, double that or probably triple or quadruple that number, which in turn because we're able to use less resources that saves us money and helps the customers save money also," Paciorek told FOX 17.

Even flying just above the treetops, there's only so much this crew can see with their eyes. They have an infrared camera on the front looking for hot wires.

"It's exactly ... just a loose or dirty connection that is causing resistance, and so for it heats up."

Last year, this crew says they uncovered a total of 1,100 problems with the high-voltage distribution lines.

"That's about double than what we have found typically in another year," Paciorek told FOX 17.

Paciorek says if any one of those problems didn't get addressed, thousands of people might have lost out on power.

"HVD is the backbone of how we deliver energy to Michigan's customers," he added.

Now Consumers Energy does have the capability with drones. However, drones are limited by mobility because crews must have a complete visual at all times.

Paciorek says this helicopter team provides faster intel about potential problems.

Consumers Energy has another 400 miles of lines that crews must be on the ground to properly observe for issues.

The utility company plans to invest more than $500 million over the next five years to help keep distribution lines from any trees.

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