Behind the scenes of the Ministry of Energy and Light

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You flip a switch or plug it in and it turns on. Besides the monthly electricity bill, you probably don’t think too much about it, but where does our energy come from? Portland is one of approximately 40 communities in the state that operates its own independent electric utility. Portland Department of Electricity and Light (DPL) officials literally keep the lights on here. To understand what they’re up to, we took a look behind the scenes with DPL director Todd Davlin.

From its headquarters on Grand River Ave, the DPL operates the city’s electricity grid.

The most notable part of this system are the natural gas generators housed at the Grand River Ave facility. Inside, three huge natural gas-fired generators are idle most of the time. The two larger ones start with diesel before switching to natural gas. The smaller one runs on diesel only and is primarily used to start the other two in the event of a large-scale power failure. According to Davlin, these generators are used whenever demand peaks or the cost of purchasing electricity in the market makes their operation economical. This is mainly during the summer months when demand peaks as the Portlanders turn on the air conditioning to combat the heat. Besides the monthly tests, the last time they were used extensively was in the winter of 2021, when large-scale power outages in Texas shattered the nation’s power supply, causing costs to rise.

In addition to the natural gas plant, DPL operates the Portland Dam hydroelectric plant. The Lyons Road Dam, despite being nearly 100 years old, continues to circle around, supplying around 10% of the city’s electricity needs. Inside the brick generator building along the shore, two gigantic spinning turbines powered by the waters of the Grand River cascading under the building. The dam dates back to a bygone era when many cities were building eclectic factories primarily to meet street lighting needs. Back then, Davlin says, these dynamos likely supplied all of the city’s needs, which is why the department’s name specifically includes the word light. To this day, the DPL maintains the city’s lampposts.

In recent years, there has been serious concern about dam safety after a catastrophic dam failure in Midland, Michigan. After taking over as chairman of the DPL last summer, Davlin says this is something he wanted to be sure he was proactive about. He says one of the first things he did was contact the state licensing body that oversees the dams to request an assessment. They say regulators have said, “I’m not worried about your dam,” Davlin says. The dam is low in height, which means the amount of water behind it is relatively small compared to taller dams like the one that failed at Midland. In addition, the concrete dam is topped with a 2 foot wooden section which is determined to come off in the event of flooding to gradually release the pressure. The wooden structure is regularly repaired and the broken planks replaced. Davlin says he and his staff also routinely monitor earth embankments along the sides of the dam, where many dam failures are starting to look for erosion or leaks. This includes regular inspection, mowing and maintenance of vegetation to prevent erosion. Despite this, Davlin says he is taking no safety risks and has plans for independent engineers to inspect the dam in early 2022 to give a new look at Portland’s original green power source. “Since 1896, Portland has been renewable,” Davlin says, and diligent care is important, “so 100 years from now we’re still producing renewable energy.”

Between the dam and the natural gas generators, about 2/3 of the electricity the city needs can be generated locally if needed. Most of the time, however, these generators are not online and this is where the electricity purchased through the Michigan Public Power Association (MPPA) and fed to the DPL through the lines of Consumers Energy comes in. As a member of the MPPA, the DPL owns shares in a variety of power generation facilities, from solar and wind farms to coal-fired power plants. This diverse portfolio of power generation ensures stability and reliability, says Davlin.

In total, Portland’s electricity comes roughly equally from coal, natural gas, and a mix of renewable sources. This renewable third party includes the hydroelectric plant as well as the energy purchased through the MPPA. In fact, last week, Davlin says, a solar farm that the DPL invested in through the MPPA was put into operation. Moving forward, Davlin says he’s definitely considering phasing out coal and replacing it with natural gas in the short term and later expanding solar and wind generation. In fact, several coal-fired power plants in which the DPL owns shares through the MPPA have announced their intention to shut down within the next 5-10 years. “The price of solar and wind has dropped dramatically,” Davlin says. He also predicts that gaseous hydrogen will be an important player because it can be used as an energy storage mechanism. Surplus solar / wind power can be used to produce hydrogen gas from natural gas or water, which can be stored and burned cleanly to provide electricity when demand peaks.

In addition to power plants, Davlin and his team of linemen oversee and maintain the city’s power line system. Currently around 85% of the city’s lines are underground and each year the DPL strives to bury more of the remaining lines. Davlin credits his predecessor, Mike Hyland, with the foresight of burying the city’s power lines in the 1980s. This underground system has played a crucial role in maintaining constant electricity service in severe weather, including the 2015 tornado.

In addition to the gradual burying of the lines, the DPL is also gradually replacing all the city’s street lights with low-energy LED bulbs. The ministry is also working to upgrade all electricity meters to “smart meters” that can be monitored remotely. This not only allows for more accurate billing, but also helps target maintenance to avoid failures by spotting equipment failures before they occur. The department plans to work with NextEra Energy, a company with many years of experience operating smart grids in Florida to provide technical support and grid security. Although still in the planning phase once started, the meter replacement would likely take several months.

Asked about the DPL’s involvement in the city’s development of a fiber-optic internet system, Davlin said that too is still in the planning stage, but that a working session is scheduled for the first of the year. year. “From what we look at, it appears to be doable, but not without challenges,” he said. These challenges are mainly related to the initial costs of building the infrastructure. The slow progress on this is because “we’re trying to do our due diligence,” to take care of community resources, Davlin said.

PHOTOS: Jordan Smith, Todd Davlin


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