Lansing— Lawmakers ripped the capital city’s public utility Tuesday while praising power giants Consumers Energy and DTE Energy for their responses to a five-day December ice storm that caused 600,000 power outages.
House Energy and Technology Committee members were unimpressed by explanations from a Lansing Board of Water and Light official who acknowledged the utility poorly informed customers, some of whom were without electricity for 10 or more days.
“I feel like I’m sitting at a Detroit Lions press conference explaining another losing season,” said Rep. Jeff Farrington, R-Utica, who opened the round of criticism.
“You failed your customers,” said Rep. Henry Yanex, D-Sterling Heights. “I think you’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Rep. Brad Jacobsen, R-Oxford, said one of his staffers was without power for six days and helped neighbors place “buckets” to cordon off a downed power line across a road that went unattended during the whole time. “Come on, this is ridiculous; I’m sorry,” Jacobsen said.
Their target was George Stojic, BWL’s executive director of strategic planning and development. Legislators said they were perplexed he was promising a “very deep comprehensive review” of the utility’s operations yet couldn’t provide specifics, such as how much money BWL spent on repairs.
His comments contrasted with polished presentations by officials of the two large utilities, who had cost repair figures — $48 million for Consumers, $36 million DTE — and more specifics about changes they plan to make to deal with future storms.
All three utility officials said they don’t expect to raise electrical rates as a result of repair costs. Consumers Senior Vice President for Distribution Dan Malone said insurance will cover half of his company’s cost.
BWL is Michigan’s largest municipal utility, covering Lansing, a big chunk of East Lansing, Dewitt and parts of three townships.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and other central Michigan lawmakers have promised legislation to prompt inquiries into the Lansing utility’s storm response or bring it under the auspices of the Michigan Public Service Commission. Public utilities currently aren’t regulated by the commission.
Energy and Technology Committee Chairman Aric Nesbitt said he is holding hearings to determine if legislation or commission action are needed.
“This is still part of a process,” said Nesbitt, R-Lawton. “I want to drill down more.”
During a period from Dec. 21 through Christmas, a narrow band of storms swept through central Michigan with up to three-fourths of an inch of ice followed by wind and snow. Lansing, Flint and Lapeer were hard hit as tree limbs fell for days under the weight of ice and snow.
The same storm hit Toronto, where 40 percent of the local utility’s customers were without power for up to 10 days. It later caused massive outages in Maine.
DTE Energy Vice President Trevor Lauer said the half-inch to three-quarters-inch of ice coating added about 4,000 pounds to stretches of electrical wire between poles. It was “like hanging a car” from the lines, Lauer said.
The BWL has been slammed by customers at three public meetings and is undergoing three reviews of its ice storm performance, although it fully restored power within about the same amount of time as did the two larger utilities.
Its communication system broke down under a deluge of calls the night of Dec. 21. While Consumers and DTE used sophisticated strategies and social media to keep their customers updated on repair progress, BWL customers were in the dark for several days.
Area residents have charged the company prepared poorly and waited too long to call in an adequate number of outside crews. Its general manager, Peter Lark, has been raked for leaving Lansing on a trip to visit a son in New York in the midst of storm repairs.
In his company’s defense, BWL’s Stojic pointed out the Public Service Commission considers a storm “catastrophic” when 10 percent to 20 percent of a utility’s customers lose power, as was the case with Consumers and DTE.
He noted 40 percent of BWL’s customers were without power at the peak of the storm’s damage.
“You’d have to look long and hard in Michigan to find a utility that suffered that amount of damage,” Stojic said. Ice storms are especially tough because damage “usually continues over a week,” he said.
Stojic said BWL brought 90 percent of its customers back online in five days and the other 10 percent in five more days. Customers whose electrical connections were torn from their houses, requiring private repairs, were without power longer, he said.
But Stojic admitted BWL’s response system — especially communications — “failed us. Because of that, we could not accurately determine all the customers who were without power ... could not adequately communicate with customers,” he said.
Stoijic said the company still is working on policy changes responding to the “lessons learned” and promised to provide Nesbitt’s committee a detailed plan when it’s completed.
Stojic hustled out of the House hearing room at the end of the session, refusing interview requests from a dozen newspaper and TV reporters.