Michigan panels seek answers after ‘historic’ storm
Lansing — Michigan’s two utility companies will have to answer for their response to what has been called a “historic” windstorm that left 1.15 million customers without power last month, including 2,000 who were left in the dark for a week or more.
The state Public Service Commission is asking DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to report how they handled the recent power losses, even as it praises them for spending money to trim branches that could fall on power lines and cause outages during storms. The three-member commission wants “a thorough accounting” about how the companies responded to the outages.
A Michigan House energy panel chairman also plans to hold a hearing to question representatives from both utilities about the outages.
In the reports due May 15, the commission wants to “understand more of the lessons learned by Michigan utilities.” The three commissioners said they want to know how much utility investments in infrastructure, new technology and “vegetation management, including the clearance of trees outside of the utility easement, affected the time and number of outages from the wind storm.”
The request late last month came as federal statistics show that Michigan was among the top 10 states from 2013 to 2015 for the most “electric disturbance events” in the nation. In Michigan’s case, the U.S. Department of Energy defined that as a power outage affecting 50,000 or more people for at least an hour.
Last year, Michigan finished in the middle of the pack, tying eight other states for the 24th highest number of electrical disturbances nationwide, according to the Energy Information Administration. In 2013, Michigan had the third highest number, the fourth most in 2014 and tied for seventh in 2015 with Utah and Puerto Rico.
“We know weather plays a big role,” Michigan Public Service Commission Chairwoman Sally Talberg said about outages in general. She called the windstorm “historic.”
The March 8 storm generated winds of up to 68 miles per hour that toppled trees and power lines across the state. About 800,000 DTE Energy Customers lost power, while 350,000 Consumers Energy customers suffered outages. About 2,000 DTE customers lost power for more than a week.
High winds and warm weather allowed wind to wrench trees from softened earth that had eased its grip on roots. DTE has called it the “second largest weather event” in company history, spurring the company to get help from out-of-state firms to cut through fallen limbs and repair downed power lines.
“The damage was ... just incredible,” said DTE Energy CEO Gerry Anderson. “The number of large limbs and large trees — much of it outside our right away — that came down on our lines … we had a thousand men with chainsaws out there trying to clear all that off before we could really get to work.”
About 38,000 DTE customers were again without power Friday morning after a Thursday storm buffeted the Thumb area, north of M-69, with strong winds, rain and snow.
Policy changes await reports
Anderson said dealing with major storm damage “takes a long time,” so the company is “investing in our grid to deal with that” and cutting more limbs that may hang over power lines and have the potential to cause outages if they break.
Talberg and the other two commissioners say tree trimming and installing newer electric equipment can reduce losses of power. But both are expensive and could increase electricity rates for Michigan customers. The public service commissioners, appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, and utility executives are consequently hesitant to do too much of either.
The commissioners say they want to see the reports from DTE and Consumers before making new policy decisions. The three-person commission sets utility rates and can force DTE and Consumers to spend money on certain things related to grid reliability, such as tree trimming.
House Energy Policy Committee Chairman Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, said he plans to host both DTE and Consumers representatives at a hearing to account for the outages.
“I think they’ve done a pretty good job of responding to power outages,” Glenn said, “but how much money they invest in maintaining the distribution network, the grid” might be reconsidered.
The second-term conservative lawmaker added the two companies would likely be more proactive “if they had to compete with other electricity providers for business.” Glenn has argued that Michigan’s utility market should be opened to more competition, which he says would restrict rate hikes and improve service.
DTE’s Anderson said his utility is willing to spend more on tree trimming. But he did not make a firm commitment, arguing the company has to balance its limb hacking with the desires of local communities for keeping older, tall, leafy trees.
“I feel like upping the investment makes sense, but, as I said, we gotta strike a balance,” he said.
But DTE rarely contacts local leaders before sending in the tree trimming crews, said Mike Selden, membership director of the Michigan Townships Association. Local officials haven’t been calling the association to plead for less limb hacking, he said.
“Since I’ve been here at MTA for almost a year and a half now, I haven’t gotten any contacts here from townships questioning it,” Shelden said. “Typically the notification (from utilities) is more of a courtesy to say, ‘Hey we’re gonna be in, this is what we’re gonna be doing.’”
Eastpointe Mayor Suzanne Pixely said DTE “always notifies city administrators” before trimming over right of ways and easements.
“They also contact residents to notify them about trees on their property that are hazardous to power lines,” she said. “I’ve received these notes with diagrams of the necessary trimming. Residents are given the opportunity to trim their trees or DTE will do it.”
Eastpointe had 51 power lines down after the recent windstorm, which left 40 percent of the city without power for nearly three days, Pixely said, and it “would have been much worse without tree trimming.”
Millions spent trimming trees
Earlier this year before the windstorm, the commission ordered DTE to spend $75.2 million on tree trimming this year, and Consumers to spend $38.5 million. Both companies submitted a five-year electric distribution and maintenance plan for the first time, according to the commission.
Consumers spent $88 million in the past two years on tree trimming and $520 million over the past five years “to strengthen” the company’s electric system, Consumers spokeswoman Katie Carey said. The utility also plans “to spend $750 million over the next five years, helping us deliver energy more reliably.”
“I feel strongly about understanding better what their work practices are and how they can improve their work practices,” said Commissioner Norman Saari, who has been on the commission since 2015.
Weather, multitudes of trees as well as aging electrical poles, wires and other equipment play a role in outages, said Talberg, who has chaired the commission since early last year. But fallen trees are the No. 1 reason for Michigan power outages, she said.
“The last few years, there really has been a significant focus on tree trimming,” Talberg said. “It does cost a lot of money.”
How Michigan compares
Where Michigan ranked for major electric disturbances in the past four years.
1. California 16
2. Delaware 11
3. Michigan 11
4. Maryland 9
1. Texas 20
2. California 17
3. Oregon 14
4. Michigan 12
5. Pennsylvania 11
1. California 25
2. Texas 21
3. Washington 12
4. Tennessee 10
5. North Carolina 8
6. Kansas 7
7. Michigan 6
Puerto Rico 6
1. Texas 14
3. California 13
4. Puerto Rico 9
5. Florida 8
24. Michigan 2
and 8 other states
Source: U.S. Department of Energy