As utilities slowly restore power after ice storm, residents and lawmakers say more must be done
DTE Energy in Detroit | Susan J. Demas
With more winter weather on the way, nearly 93,000 people remained without power Monday morning, following last week’s winter ice storm that swept across southern Michigan.
As of 6:35 a.m. Monday, DTE Energy reported 61,689 customers without power, while Consumers Energy said 31,342 of its customers were still awaiting power restoration.
While those numbers are down significantly from the more than 1 million utility customers who were affected following Wednesday’s ice storm — which led to schools closing and local governments opening warming centers — the restoration efforts may be hampered by a new weather system.
Help after the storm
If you need shelter or food while you’re without power, call 211.
Michigan utility customers can file complaints with the MPSC by going to www.michigan.gov/mpsc or calling their customer assistance staff at 800-292-9555 weekdays.
A Winter Weather Advisory issued by the National Weather Service predicts a mixture of snow, sleet and freezing rain will move across most of Michigan Monday morning bringing new accumulations of snow and ice and wind gusts up to 35 mph.
Meanwhile, anger and frustration at the pace of the efforts, especially in DTE’s service area, have many customers questioning the restoration process, an issue the utility addressed on social media Sunday.
“We have a whole process and a whole team who helps us analyze and take a look at where all of those small pockets are still at,” said Ryan Stowe, vice president of distribution operations for DTE. “Then we have dedicated crews that we use to route and go after those single services and other small problems in the electrical system. To get them restored really can be kind of a complex process because we’re talking about thousands and thousands of locations for our crews to go out and work on.”
However, the length and scope of the outages has prompted much anger from both utility customers and public officials.
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) noted that DTE had made $1.1 billion in profits last year.
“They are choosing their profits over your family,” she tweeted. “Enough is enough. We need public power in Michigan,” adding, “We have some of the highest utility rates in the nation while having one of the most unreliable electrical grids…How much of that is being invested in maintenence [sic] + upgrades? You have asked what can we do. We organize”
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) said she had been working with her staff to try to expedite power restoration, especially for vulnerable residents or those with medical emergencies.
“The length of this outage, in freezing temperatures, is completely unacceptable,” McMorrow tweeted. “The frequency of outages and lack of reliability is completely unacceptable. I hear you and I’m as frustrated and angry as you are.”
When questioned if there would be hearings in Lansing about the response and wait times, McMorrow said while she hadn’t had time to speak to committee chairs, she planned to request that they occur. Other Democratic lawmakers echoed that sentiment, WDIV-TV reported.
Rep. Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) was blunt in his criticism of DTE.
“While you freeze, DTE’s wallet is nice and hot on Wall Street, he tweeted, along with a screenshot of the utility’s stock price rising. “Did I mention they spend millions on campaign contributions to your politicians?”
While Consumers Energy didn’t respond to a Michigan Advance request for comment, the agency that regulates the state’s public utilities did.
Michigan Public Service Commission spokesperson Matt Helms told the Michigan Advance that the body shares the frustration Michigan’s utility customers are feeling.
“We are monitoring the situation and getting regular updates from the utilities,” he said. “This was a severe ice storm that knocked down tens of thousands of power lines and power poles, with widespread damage at levels we’ve seen only a handful of times in the last 50 years.”
Helms said amidst the increasingly severe storms that knock out power, the MPSC is conducting a wide-ranging effort to improve the reliability of Michigan’s power grid.
“We have undertaken a number of steps in the last couple of years to better understand why Michigan’s power grid has had so many challenges,” he said.
Helms said that as fallen trees and branches are the leading cause of outages in Michigan, they’ve directed utilities to step up their efforts to trim more trees on a faster rotation.
“Early indications are that areas where these efforts have been focused are seeing fewer outages, and the outages are of shorter duration,” said Helms.
Other steps the MPSC has taken, according to Helms, include launching an ongoing review of reliability, systemwide audits of the electricity distribution systems and approved rules updates for all regulated utilities that increased power outage credits to $35 from $25, plus $35 per additional day beyond acceptable thresholds, and make the credits automatic.
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“The updates also will shorten required times for utilities to restore long-duration outages; reduce the amount of time first responders must guard downed wires until they’re relieved by a utility lineworker; update reliability standards to ensure Michigan’s performance indicators match industry guidelines; and establish annual reporting requirements for rural electric cooperatives and all investor-owned utilities to ensure they’re reporting service quality and reliability performance to the Commission,” said Helms.
The MPSC anticipates the rule changes will take effect in the next few weeks pending final approval in the state administrative review process, Helms added.
While the increase will provide some additional relief to utility customers, it isn’t nearly enough to make a meaningful difference according to consumer groups like the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan (CUB), which had called for a credit of $2 per hour. However, that was rejected by the MPSC as “not reasonable” without providing any further explanation.
“After several years of discussions, the Commission’s order is very disappointing and represents a true missed opportunity,” said CUB Executive Director Amy Bandyk. “The Commissioners did not take the bold steps needed to confront the reliability crisis facing Michigan, where customers pay some of the highest electric rates in the country for some of the worst service in the country in terms of how often the power stays on.”
CUB most recently assailed DTE’s priorities in a Feb. 23 blog post.
“The problem is not that DTE wants to invest to improve the grid; it is that DTE’s plans are not the most cost-effective use of ratepayer dollars,” stated the post. “Its investment priorities consistently are aimed more at enriching DTE shareholders by investing more capital that generates a return for the utility, rather than spending smarter to get the same (or better) improvements in grid reliability, while saving money for ratepayers.”
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