DTE, Consumers Energy face audits due to outages and safety concerns

By: - October 7, 2022 1:16 pm

DTE Energy in Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Following concerns about DTE Electric Co. and Consumers Energy Co.’s  progress in reducing power outages and keeping the public away from downed lines, the Michigan Public Safety Commission (MPSC) this week ordered its staff to begin a third-party audit of the utility companies.

The commission also ordered DTE and Consumers to report on their compliance with commission orders and regulations on responding to outages and downed power lines. 

The commission’s decision follows public frustration spurred by multiple large-scale, lengthy power outages caused by severe storms. 

During the most recent event on Aug. 29, a 14-year-old girl was killed in Monroe, and two boys were critically injured due to contact with a downed power line.

Storm gusts exceeded 70 mph, leaving nearly half a million customers without electricity for days, with dozens of schools closing as the school year was beginning. 

“These actions represent a new approach to the MPSC’s work to hold the state’s two largest electric utilities to account for persistent reliability and safety challenges,” said Dan Scripps, the commission’s chair. “Over the past decade the MPSC has issued a series of directives in response to widespread outages after storms. While there are important efforts underway, the reality is that we still haven’t seen the improvements in reliability and safety that Michigan customers deserve.”

Each company must submit a report on how it has complied with past commission orders, including commission directives issued in May. 

DTE and Consumers Energy will have until Nov. 4 to provide detailed answers to the following issues:

  • How downed wire response audits are performed, to ensure the companies are responding in a consistent manner that complies with regulatory requirements and company procedures.
  • How technologies are being used to improve detection of downed wires, to help the commission better understand the detection system and what improvements can be made to improve public safety.
  • How technologies used to monitor and control the power grid perform during outages, and what impacts the outage-related loss of data from these sensors may have on restoration and storm recovery.
  • How critical facilities, ranging from hospitals to schools, are identified and prioritized for restoration of service after an outage, to help the Commission examine potential improvements such as installation of microgrids that could provide redundancy to preserve electric service.
  • Company efforts to engage in public outreach, education and training of the public and first responders on the dangers of downed power lines, and on improvements to these efforts given the large-scale outage and downed-wire events in 2021 and 2022.

The commission will also hire a third-party consultant to perform an independent audit reviewing the companies’ electric distribution systems, focused on reducing the number and duration of outages and identifying improvements needed to increase safety, especially related to downed power lines. 

The audit will be paid for by DTE and Consumers Energy, per state law. 

“Safety is our top priority at Consumers Energy, not just for our coworkers but for everyone in our state,” spokesperson Brian Wheeler said in a statement. “We appreciate the MPSC’s interest in ensuring that energy providers are taking steps to protect and inform people before, during and after severe storms, and improve electric system reliability and resilience. We look forward to working with the MPSC and focusing on the well-being of the people we serve.”

In May, Consumers Energy announced its plans to invest $100 million into reducing the length and duration of power outages, including rebuilding nearly 40 miles of lines, replacing 750 poles and installing new technology that will improve the company’s ability to quickly and effectively isolate and restore outages. 

These upgrades are part of Consumers’ five-year Electric Reliability Plan, investing $5.4 billion into trimming trees, replacing poles and wires and upgrading substations and other key equipment. 

DTE also sent a statement saying it shares MPSC’s concerns and will provide a full account of storm damage, safety precautions and recovery efforts, alongside its plan to improve reliability and prevent future outages.

DTE proposed a $388 million grid modernization plan in January which would support tree trimming efforts and improvements to electrical grid reliability. 

In August 2021, MPSC opened a case against DTE, Consumers Energy and other power companies in response to storm damage in their service areas. The actions prompted by this case, including aggressive tree trimming and vegetation removal have been effective in reducing the number and duration of outages in affected areas, MPSC said in a statement. 

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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson was a reporting intern for the Michigan Advance. A recent MSU graduate, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He has reported on community events, breaking news, state policy, and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.