Like hundreds of thousands of people across Southeast Michigan last February, Forest Gregg lost power to his Ann Arbor home. The outage lasted five days. He and his wife had a newborn, and because of how widespread the outages were, they had to go all the way to Toledo, Ohio, to find a place to stay.
When they lost power again in July, he started thinking about how to track power outages. Gregg is a data nerd and a partner at DataMade, a Chicago-based civic technology company that has used data and built maps to help people do everything from track vacant lots to COVID in wastewater.
“I’ve lived in Ann Arbor for about four years now, and I’ve never been in a place that has had this many electrical outages for this long,” he said.
Gregg has created maps that make it possible to see how each of Michigan’s two largest power companies, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, stack up against each other in terms of the frequency of power outages, how long they last, and who is affected.
Check out the maps here.
I spoke to him about what he’s learned so far and what he hopes this data might be useful for in the months and years to come.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Alvarez: You said living in Ann Arbor you’ve experienced the most power outages you’ve ever been through. Where else in the country have you lived?
Forest Gregg: I grew up in Tennessee, in a small town in the middle of the state. I’ve lived in Asheville, North Carolina, Chicago for many years and in Seattle.
That’s a pretty good cross section, but the outages could have something to do with the weather getting worse. That is definitely what the utility companies in the state say. What were you trying to explore through plotting outage data this way?
I just wanted to see what the scale of the outage was. But then I also wanted to see what kind of patterns are in the data. Like whether there were certain communities that seemed like they were having longer delays. One thing that kind of surprises me is that Ann Arbor is a white and wealthy place. In my experience from living in other parts of the country, those are places that usually get taken care of faster. I was kind of curious if that was going to be applied here, but you know, DTE seems like they treat everyone kind of equally bad. So that was something I was curious about. But I also just wanted to start collecting the data so later, we might be able to do some more sophisticated analysis.
What kind of things do you think this data can be used for down the line when there have been more outages and data?
I think we do need more data. Right now, it seems like Consumers Energy, which has its own problems, does seem to have outages that are as severe, and they seem to resolve outages more quickly than DTE does. Maybe that’s just population density, but I’m not sure it is, because you can oftentimes see differences right at the border of the service area where there should be pretty similar communities.
That’s why I was curious about this storm that happened on Wednesday, August 23. The black line on the map divides the DTE service area from the Consumers service area. I’m seeing part of the state that the service area cuts right through, and there are very few power outages on the Consumers side of the line and a lot on the DTE side of the line. Right? But I also see these storm tracks that kind of miss most of the power outages altogether. What do you know about that?
I can’t really speak to the storm. I’d like to learn more about that. The storm tracks on the map show these places where a couple of storm cells are, but it doesn’t mean that other places weren’t getting lots of rain and wind.
What else are you looking at?
After I have a year of data, I want to break it down by legislative district. State legislators should be interested to know how many outages are happening in their district compared to other districts in the state.
As a person who reports on utilities, it’s really hard to find public data about these outages.
This is why I wanted to start collecting the data. Now we have a month of data, and in a year we’ll have a year of data. I hope at that point we can do more. There’s lots more data that would be great to have. One thing that I’m curious about is that both DTE and Consumers Energy report a number of consumers affected, which I imagine is the number of bill payers. I’m sure they have estimates about how many people that is, on average. I mean, you see in the paper that 400,000 consumers were affected by these power outages, for example, but it’s almost certainly many more people. I think number of people would be a more accurate way of reporting the data, you know.
Is there anything people can do to contribute to this project?
If folks want to look at the data themselves, they can get it from links on the map. The data is available for anyone to download. If journalists or researchers wanted to take a look, I’d be happy to walk them through it. I made a version of this map that just focused on Ann Arbor, so I could communicate the scale of outages to my city councilor. If folks would like a version of these maps for their local community, I’d be happy to help set that up.