At House hearing, DTE and Consumers Energy urged to address ‘unacceptable’ electrical reliability
After a severe ice storm in late February left hundreds of thousands of households without power for days, a Michigan House panel Wednesday held a hearing to discuss repeated issues with major utilities.
Members of the House Energy, Communications and Technology committee heard testimony from DTE, Consumers Energy and the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), which sets regulations for energy and telecommunication companies.
“It’s been well documented that Michigan residents pay the 11th highest rates for electricity in the U.S. We are here today to get to the bottom of why these outages keep happening,” said Chair Helena Scott (D-Detroit).
While representatives from DTE and Consumers discussed their restoration efforts and plans to address future long-term outages, members of the committee pressed the companies on accountability and their responsibilities to their customers.
Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer for DTE, noted the storm’s severity as a contributing factor to the outage before highlighting the company’s plan to further invest in tree trimming, maintenance and upkeep, updates to aging pieces of the electrical grid, and automating energy restoration.
“What’s clear is the weather has changed, the weather patterns continue to change and our job, and we accept the responsibility, is to harden the grid,” Lauer said.
Chris Laird, vice president of electric operations for Consumers Energy said the storm was extremely unique, with three waves of weather hitting the grid with quarters of an inch of ice and 45 mile per hour winds and freezing rain.
“Ice at that thickness doesn’t just damage electric lines. It takes down mature trees, tree limbs, [electrical] poles and cross arms, all of which create an outage for our customers,” Laird said.
Tonya Berry, vice president of transformation and engineering for Consumers Energy, said the company is reviewing best practices in other states facing severe weather as it looks into strengthening poles and other infrastructure, or potentially placing lines underground.
The committee questioned the companies on credits paid to customers without power for five days after a catastrophic storm with DTE offering affected customers $35 and Consumers offering $25. The providers said these credits were in line with MPSC standards.
“Twenty-five dollars for five days is $5 a day. Eggs cost $6 a dozen,” said Rep. Jenn Hill (D-Marquette).
Rep. Mike McFall (D-Hazel Park) questioned Consumers Energy’s policy.
“DTE is doing $35 which, to be quite honest, isn’t a whole lot more but it’s a gesture. Why is it that [Consumers Energy is] not voluntarily increasing it?” said McFall.
According to MPSC Commissioner Katherine Peretick, the commission is currently working to increase outage credit standards to $35 a day plus $35 for each additional day applied automatically. The commission is also working to change the standard for repetitive interruption credits to have utilities automatically credit customers $35 if they experience six or more interruptions in 12 months.
In her testimony Peretick said she and her fellow commissioners consider the state of electrical reliability in Michigan unacceptable.
“Outages occur far too frequently, impact far too many people, take far too long to restore and even worse, downed wires have cost far too many lives. This is our number one priority at the commission,” Peretick said.
While the MPSC has broad authority over investor-owned electric and natural gas companies, its power is limited, Peretick said. While the commission sets regulations and standards of service they cannot make management decisions for investor-owned utilities they regulate.
MPSC identified severe weather, poor vegetation management and aging energy distribution infrastructure as the main cause of outages, with falling tree limbs accounting for most of the outages in DTE and Consumers Energy systems.
While the utilities have taken action to improve the reliability of their energy grids, more needs to be done, Peretick said.
In October, the commission ordered an independent audit of Consumers and DTE’s energy systems, including a physical audit of the utilities’ installed infrastructure as well as a review of programs and processes including how their systems are operated and how maintenance is prioritized.
MPSC is also tightening its service quality rules, requiring utilities to restore power to 90% of its customers within 48 hours of a catastrophic storm, as opposed to the current standard of 60 hours.
The commission also halved the required response times for addressing a downed wire, now requiring utilities to respond to downed wires in metropolitan areas within two hours and within three hours in non-metropolitan areas.
MPSC expects the new rules will be issued by March 24.
The commission is also developing a webpage where the public can access reliability data from the utility companies. The site will be live March 24 and the companies will be required to submit data by May 15.
“This is the first time that data like this has been made accessible. And I strongly believe in doing our work in public and being open with the residents of Michigan about the state of the electricity system that they pay for,” Peretick said.
In addition to testimony from the energy companies and MPSC, the committee also heard testimony from affected residents, including Highland Park Mayor Glenda McDonald.
McDonald said the city regularly faces power outages, with the sections of the city experiencing outages at least twice a year.
Following the storm on Feb. 22, McDonald said Highland Park lost power four times. The city lost power at its fire department, police department, City Hall and two senior buildings.
“I cannot run a city, however small it is, without power,” McDonald said.
I cannot run a city, however small it is, without power.
While Lauer said DTE had a fleet of about 100 generators of different sizes for customers with medical needs, McDonald said she was never notified of this while speaking with representatives from the company.
“We have a very high population of six senior buildings in 2.9 square miles. Six. That means there’s one in every single quadrant of our city and these seniors are experiencing high volumes of outage,” McDonald said.
“We have a high poverty rate,” McDonald said. “You cannot afford to buy generators just to continuously heat and provide lights to their homes. We know that is becoming a necessity.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, Scott said the Legislature was willing to work with DTE and Consumers Energy, as well as MPSC, and there will be a workgroup planned to address the issue of power outages.