Lawmakers press DTE, Consumers Energy on outages

Michigan lawmakers on Wednesday pressed DTE Energy and Consumer’s Energy officials and others about recent storms that left some without power for up to seven days.

House Energy, Communications, and Technology Chairwoman Helena Scott, D-Detroit, said Michiganders demand a reliable grid.

“We cannot and will not accept this as the new normal,” Scott said at the beginning of the hearing. “The power grid and associated infrastructure must be reinforced, it must be updated and improved so that Michigan residents are safe, warm, and receive the services that they pay for.”

DTE Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer at DTE, apologized to Michiganders, many whom went up to seven days without power after a Feb. 22 ice storm.

“This is not the service that we expect to give to our customers,” Lauer said.

While DTE restored power to about 600,000 customers a few days after the storm, others went up to seven days without power – ruining food, medicine, breast milk, and more.

The utilities continue to request rate hike increases, but frequent power outages remain. Lawmakers questioned if utility companies were accountable to investors to whom it pays dividends or their customers, who can’t change service.

Scott said that in 10 years, DTE has received more than $1 billion in rate increases, while Consumers has received $663 million in rate increases. Yet, he noted, the utilities still struggle to keep the lights on during storms.

Lauer blamed the outage on what he calls increasing extreme weather in Michigan.

Lauer says DTE plans to improve grid reliability but said it requires intense, long-term investment. He says strategic investment in the grid rose by $500 million, from $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

DTE said it plans to improve grid reliability through four options: tree trimming; preventative maintenance; rebuilding its system and fixing old equipment; and enacting automatic system devices that can restore power without deploying a crew, which Lauer said would “dramatically reduce the duration of outages.”

DTE recently requested a $622 million rate hike.

Consumer’s Energy serves 6.7 million gas and electric customers. Tonya L. Berry is senior vice president of transformation and engineering at Consumer’s Energy. She says the company can't control the weather but it can control response.

"Our investments in reliability show that we are headed in the right direction," she said. "However, because of the vast scale of our system, it will take dollars and time.”

Michigan Public Service Commissioner Katherine Peretick said the recent outages are “unacceptable.”

Peretick said the three major causes of outages are changing climate, poor vegetation management, and deteriorating distribution infrastructure.

Peretick said tree trimming helped reduce outages by 74% in the first year after tree trimming on the DTE system. She also noted the length of outages that did occur was reduced by 67%.

She said MPSC plans to conduct independent audits of utilities to ensure the companies are prepared for storms, are maintaining their equipment, and more.

Peretick said the MPSC is issuing new standards for utilities. The new rules include requiring utilities to give customers credits during outages. The credit is increased to $35 per day of the outage, and the credits would be automatic.

"While the causes of poor reliability are technical in nature, the impacts of poor reliability are anything but technical," Peretick said.

"When the power goes out, people lose," she said.

Peretick said these fixes will take time. The MPSC can control rates but not how utilities spend money, Peretick said.

Elouise Garley, a Detroiter who immigrated from Liberia, said DTE’s service is similar to that of a developing country.

“When I came to the USA in 2000, I never thought I would face a developing country crisis: frequent power outages,” she said.

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