A work crew from DTE works on a power line along Lansdown Road near Williams Lake Road in Waterford Township on Dec. 23. (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)
Michigan regulators will investigate the way two major utilities handled a December ice storm that knocked out power for up to a week for 661,000 customers across the state.
Meanwhile, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero appointed a retired Michigan National Guard brigadier general to lead a probe of the performance of a third utility — the Lansing Board of Water and Light — and asked state regulators to review the probe once it’s finished. The Lansing board isn’t under the state’s purview.
The state Public Service Commission, which agreed to the Lansing request, said Wednesday it will also scrutinize DTE Energy and Consumers Energy in terms of their preparation, system maintenance, crew deployment, customer communication and how such lengthy outages can be prevented in the future.
Commission Chairman John Quackenbush said the probe of DTE and Consumers was prompted by the sheer size of the storm’s impact.
“We’re doing it because of the magnitude of the number of customers that were out and for that length of time,” he said.
The commission seems to hold such reviews every four or five years, he said. The storm, which struck Dec. 21 and 22, caused ice-laden trees and branches to topple over, knocking out numerous power lines. The treacherous conditions hampered utilities’ efforts to restore power.
Residents were happy to learn about the investigation. But Tom Innes, whose Oxford Township home lost power for five days, said it’s difficult for utilities to prepare for such a massive storm. “I don’t know how they can really prepare for what they didn’t know,” he said.
DTE Energy and Consumers Energy said they welcomed the investigation. DTE had 210,000 customers without electricity, while Consumers had 416,000.
DTE spokeswoman Randi Berris said the storm damage was so severe the utility had to dispatch up to eight crews for a single outage. “This was a huge storm, one of the largest in nearly a decade,” she said. “We had a lot of damage.”
Consumers spokesman Dan Bishop said the utility was proud of its response to what he called a “catastrophic event.” He said customers are pleased with an outage map posted on its website.
The utilities have until Feb. 7 to file a response to the commission’s questions. The public can comment on the utilities’ responses by Feb. 21. The commission will make recommendations, if necessary, by March 10.
After a storm caused lengthy power outages in 2008, the PSC told DTE and Consumers to talk with state and local officials about addressing a problem with emerald ash borer trees. The disease was killing the trees, causing them to fall onto power lines and knocking out electricity.
The PSC also told the utilities to do a better job informing their customers about a $25 credit they can receive if they lose power for 120 hours.
After the December storm, the Lansing utility was roundly criticized when 35,000 customers, 35 percent of its clients, lost power, some up to 11 days. Peter Lark, general manager of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, also came under fire for leaving Michigan on vacation shortly after the storm began.
Bernero named retired Brig. Gen. Michael C.H. McDaniel to head the review of the local utility’s performance. McDaniel also is a professor at Cooley Law School. The city utility is conducting an internal review.
In a letter to the Public Service Commission, Bernero asked the state agency to review the findings of both the city and the utility’s investigations: “Your staff’s deep expertise in utility matters makes you uniquely qualified to conduct such a review.”
The Lansing utility, which isn’t regulated by the PSC, is governed by a board set by the mayor.
Given the long outages after the storm, a state legislator plans to propose legislation placing the Lansing utility under the commission’s purview. State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he got dozens of complaints from residents whose pipes had frozen or food spoiled in refrigerators.
The PSC declined to take a position on Jones’ proposed legislation. “We very much follow the lead of the Legislature on things like that,” said Quackenbush.
In response to the outcry over its handling of the storm, the Lansing utility said it will hire a consulting company to improve communication with customers. Besides hiring a public relations company, it has posted a job for a social media manager. It also has hired contractors so it can triple the number of line crews responding to future emergencies.
Staff Writer Tony Briscoe and Associated Press contributed.