Consumers Energy, with nearly 1.8 million customers, is among the largest of the gas distribution companies in the United States (ranking 12th in the in the annual P&GJ 500 Report) – and indicative of its size, it also faces one of the largest jobs when it comes to upgrading infrastructure.
In all, the company plans to replace 2,600 miles of pipe over a 25-year period, at a cost of about $75 million per year. Fortunately, under the company’s Enhanced Infrastructure Replacement Program (EIRP), Consumers Energy started right out of the gate, replacing 350 miles of pipe since 2012, including 120 miles of cast-iron and over 35,000 services.
“The program scope includes replacement of all cast-iron main, bare steel, oxyacetylene-welded, threaded, and coupled and cathodically unprotected steel main,” said Holly Bowers, executive director of Geospatial and Gas Management Assets for the utility. “The company uses our distribution risk model, along with input from subject matter expects, to select EIRP projects.”
As is the case with many of the larger gas utilities, Consumers Energy frequently finds itself working in older, congested downtown areas, with about half of its customers located in metropolitan Detroit. This can create a number challenges, particularly considering how much time the city has had to grow up around the infrastructure – some of the pipe dates back to the early 1900s – with 5% of the system built before 1950 and nearly 700 miles installed prior to 1940.
“Among the interesting logistical problems we face is coordinating project schedules to have minimal impact on local community events,” Bowers said. “We need to understand the community calendars and local restoration requirements, timing prior to winter, as well as align our construction schedules with these considerations. We work closely with local units of government and keep the lines of communication open.”
In order to further minimize traffic flow and other type of disruption in affected communities, Consumers Energy has relied heavy on boring technologies to replace pipe (about 90% of the total effort), rather than open-trenching methods, under the EIRP.
Prior to beginning a project, customers are contacted at least twice through letters and postcards informing them when the company will be updating natural gas pipelines in their neighborhood, as well as what to expect while upgrades are being performed.
Consumers Energy employees also receive special training on how to interact with customers regarding ongoing upgrades and status updates on projects in their communities. Further information about projects is provided to local governments and a news release listing gas projects is sent to media outlets each spring.
The EIRP replacement work itself is done with in-house employees, supplemented by a seasonal workforce developed by Consumers Energy for infrastructure renewal and new business projects. The construction workforce is comprised of over 450 people.
“Most seasonal workers return each construction season to provide program continuity,” Bowers said. “The workforce was designed to be more cost-effective for customers because replacement work is performed without continuing into the winter construction season.”
Each year, the company hires about 75 additional workers who receive comprehensive training. Consumers Energy places an emphasis on hiring military veterans through outreach efforts conducted with the Utility Workers Union of America’s Power for America. In addition, Consumers Energy focuses on diversity when vetting new employees or doing outreach through schools, universities and job fair events.
“We’ve worked to get individuals who will really excel at the types of work we have, and so far we’ve been really successful,” Bowers said, adding that the union has begun playing a larger role in the development and training of employees.
Bowers herself became interested in working in the natural gas industry not long after earning what she described as “a very unique degree” – in biosystems engineering with an environmental specialization from Michigan State University.
“I interned in the environmental department at Consumers while I was getting my engineering degree, and I really enjoyed the company and the people,” she said. “Then when I was looking for engineering work I interviewed with a few people within Consumers who pointed out the similarities between water and natural gas flowing through pipelines.”
While Bower started on the distribution side as a lead engineer at Consumers Energy, she now works with transmission and distribution issues and finds both sides have their own challenges and opportunities.
“Due to the direct customer impacts and volume of distribution projects, customer communications and a standard process are essential,” Bowers said. “Transmission projects can have more distinctive engineering designs based on the site, real estate, gas supply and constraints on construction timeframes due to outage windows.”
She added project manager is the key on large transmission projects. In Michigan, the company must also file and receive a certificate of public convenience and necessity when increasing transmission capacity.
“When I talk to college students who are getting their engineering degrees, I tell them, ‘It’s a very dynamic industry at the moment. There is a lot changing, and it’s a good time to be in the industry,’” she said.
With so much work either planned or underway, Consumers Energy relies heavily on a dedicated projects manager to oversee the entire program, which provides oversight and coordination of such critical information as when projects are starting, how long they are being tracked and when completion dates are scheduled.
“The key is really good communication between field operations and our project management, along with our engineering team that sits in on a weekly call to keep us coordinated on all of the projects and what kind of issues are being encountered,” Bowers said.
Consumers Energy replacement work has involved switching vintage piping with medium-density polyethylene pipe or steel for the company’s high-pressure (60-400 psig) system. Most frequently installed along the system will be 2-inch plastic replacement piping.
“Based on current material condition and service life of the gas distribution and transmission system, selected portions will be replaced with lower maintenance plastic and steel piping,” she said.
Bowers added that the benefit to customers through the EIRP improvements to the distribution system – about half of which was installed between 1950 and 1979 – include increased delivery reliability, reduced costs of operations and maintenance, fewer methane emissions and less gas loss. Most importantly, the level of safety is being bolstered on several fronts.
In addition to EIRP, Consumers Energy replaces infrastructure that may be in conflict with state or local civic improvement projects. Between 2011 and 2015, the company saw a 99% increase in the amount of main footage replaced and a 165% increase in the number of natural gas services replaced. The company is coordinating about 60 improvement projects in 17 counties.
Another major project being completed in 2016-17 involves the replacement of 3.5 miles of a pipeline serving the greater Lansing area, with new steel main to improve gas deliverability and reliability.
Consumers Energy’s ongoing construction efforts are not limited to replacement projects alone. Since 2011, the company has connected nearly 42,000 new customers, including over 8,800 Michigan residents converting to natural gas from more costly fuels such as propane.
The company’s Customer Attachment Program connects about 2,000 customers each year through projects that expand its natural gas network into underserved areas. Each year about 150 miles of new main is installed as part of these projects.
The company is also planning to begin an automated meter reading program in 2017 for about 1.2 million natural gas-only customers who are not already part of its electric/combination automated program. The new meters ensure accurate monthly bills, thereby largely eliminating estimated bills.
Consumers Energy is Michigan’s largest utility and is the principal subsidiary of CMS Energy, providing natural gas and electricity to 6.7 million of the state’s 10 million residents in all 68 Lower Peninsula counties. Its system contains 2,467 miles of transmission high-pressure pipelines, over 27,000 miles of distribution gas mains and about 1,558,000 services.
Company Upgrading Transmission Pipelines, Too
In addition to its gas distribution infrastructure, Consumers Energy is replacing significant segments of its transmission pipelines. Under the Transmission Enhancements for Deliverability & Integrity (TED-I) Program, vintage pipe segments will be replaced while capacity is increased to meet growing demand in Michigan.
“These projects are focused on maintaining deliverability, integrity and improving the ability to control gas as it flows through our system,” said Holly Bowers, executive director of Geospatial and Gas Management Assets.
One of the first major TED-I projects is the proposed $610 million Saginaw Trail Pipeline project, which consists of five phases of construction and will replace over 77 miles of pipe – installed in 1942 with 12- and 16-inch pipe – with 24-inch steel pipe at 960 maximum allowable operating pressure (MAOP).
This pipeline will extend from western Oakland County through parts of Genesee and Saginaw counties, northwest of Detroit. Construction of the first phase is expected to start this summer, replacing about 20 miles of pipeline. In addition, three city gates will be rebuilt along this first section. If all goes as planned, the final phase should be completed by 2022.
In September 2014, Consumers Energy completed the 24-mile Southwest Michigan 1200B Pipeline project, which runs south of Kalamazoo through St. Joseph and Branch counties and completes a 90-mile dual gas transmission pipeline corridor. The $120 million project created about 300 jobs and generated $25 million in direct and indirect wages over the course of construction.