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Elected officials, nonprofits call on utilities to do more to avoid outages

  • Aug 24, 2021
Roseville-Eastpointe Eastsider

METRO DETROIT - Just as local utilities restored electricity to the last of the customers who lost power during the storms Aug. 11, a number of government and nonprofit groups publicly demanded the companies take responsibility - in some cases, monetarily - for multi-day outages.

As Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel called on DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to instate automatic account credits to customers who endured several days without power, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer echoed the request with a letter to the utilities' CEOs, asking for automatic credits for customers along with additional investments in infrastructure upgrades.

"As you know, power outages of this magnitude pose untold hardships for Michigan families and businesses, including the loss of frozen and refrigerated food and medicine; interference with oxygen, CPAP machines and other home medical equipment; the need to find alternative housing and workspaces for those continuing to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic; and exacerbating the health threats posed by hot weather, particularly for communities of color and low-income residents who suffer the most. This is unacceptable," Whitmer wrote in her letter. "Absent immediate action, impacts on Michigan families will only intensify, lending real urgency to our work to maintain system-wide reliability while decarbonizing the economy."

She went on to recognize the diligent work the companies' field crews did to get southeast Michigan's more than 750,000 customers powered again, and she acknowledged that improvements have indeed been made since 2019 Statewide Energy Assessment was done at her request following the extended power outages that had occurred earlier that year during a polar vortex.

"While I appreciate your efforts to date, it is clear, however, that more is needed to make our electric infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change," Whitmer wrote. "The state's grid is at an inflection point, and if we are going to continue to protect Michigan families, our grid must be up to the challenge."

The Michigan Public Service Commission played a lead role in the Statewide Energy Assessment and said it supports her request to ramp up efforts from utilities to make the repairs and recommended improvements, of which there are 37, suggested in that report.

The report did, however, deem Michigan's energy delivery systems as "adequate to meet the needs of Michigan Customers," even during times with abnormally high demand, equipment failures and inclement weather.

"Tree and limb contact with power lines cause the great majority of outages in Michigan, and the MPSC has for several years directed utilities to speed up tree trimming, in addition to replacing aging infrastructure to harden the grid," the commission said in a prepared statement provided by MPSC Public Information Officer Matt Helms. "But as recent storms show, we've got more work to do, particularly as climate change makes storms increasingly severe."

Among the suggestions from the MPSC in its most recent statement is for utilities to increase the standard $25 credit issued to customers to compensate for lengthy or repeat outages, and to apply those credits automatically, as opposed to the current process, where customers need to file an application for the funds.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters released a statement also asking for increased account credits for impacted customers, but went a step further and asked that the MPSC and Michigan Legislature conduct oversight hearings on the failures of DTE and Consumers Energy to prevent outages and reconnect customers following the storms.

"For years now, our residential rates have been skyrocketing, eating up more of family budgets, and yet all we get is more blackouts, longer outage times, and less reliability. DTE and Consumers seem content to rake in massive, windfall profits while families and businesses across Michigan suffer without power," Bob Allison, the deputy director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a press release. "We need a full-on, independent state investigation, and our Legislature and the Public Service Commission should get to the bottom of why Michigan's utility companies continue to fail their customers and businesses. No family should ever be left in the dark for a week again."

Over in Southfield, the city and Lathrup Village partnered in the creation of a petition to hold DTE Energy accountable for the continued excessive power outages and lack of infrastructure investment. DTE Energy is the only provider of power to residents in those municipalities.

"It is essential that this sole source provider become more concerned with their service delivery and performance over their profits," added Southfield City Council President Linnie Taylor in a press release. "It is long past time for DTE to make lasting improvements to their system that will be measurable, sustainable and reliable."

C & G Newspapers made several requests to DTE Energy for comment, but did not receive a response before press time.

In an interview last month, Ana Medina, DTE Energy's director of regional customer operations, acknowledged the increasing strength of storms and said the utility has pledged to devote a billion dollars annually to upgrading infrastructure.

"We do a couple different things," said Medina in July, detailing an intensive tree trimming program, as well as replacement of wires and poles with more durable equipment.

"We're getting winds that are nearly as strong as tropical storms, coupled with an already-saturated ground from all the rain. We do different things, but we cannot control the extreme weather. The weather patterns are really changing, so we're hardening the infrastructure."

Consumers Energy released a prepared statement in response to Whitmer's letter.

"As an energy provider, we know keeping the lights on is job one for Consumers Energy. Dealing with power outages can be frustrating for our customers, and we're proud of our team's amazing work last week to restore power swiftly and safely and care for our customers who were impacted by the extreme weather Michigan endured," the statement reads. "To work to prevent outages, we've already more than doubled our investment in grid hardening reliability and increased our forestry investment by more than 60 percent since 2018. Looking forward, we plan to continue to significantly increase our investments in grid reliability. We have a $5.4 billion electric reliability plan that is a blueprint for serving Michigan today and innovating to reduce the duration and number of power outages. We are proud to partner with the governor and Michigan Public Service Commission on improving reliability, in an affordable way, when historic weather events hit our state."


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