Cities, activists call for hearings over utilities' response to storm outages

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Activists and city officials in Oakland County are seeking more answers from utility companies on their response to power outages after recent severe weather left hundreds of thousands in the dark for days across Michigan.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters on Thursday called for the state Public Service Commission and the Legislature to conduct oversight hearings on "the failures by DTE and Consumers Energy to prevent outages and reconnect customers following summer storms."

The group also is seeking a moratorium on residential electric rate hikes until independent investigations are held.

“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," said Bob Allison, the league's deputy director, in a statement. "No family should ever be left in the dark for a week again.”

A DTE line worker, works on the power lines in 4400 block of Bethune Ct. in West Bloomfield Monday morning, Aug. 16.

Also Thursday, the cities of Southfield and Lathrup Village launched a petition asking DTE Energy to explain why the communities continue to experience lengthy outages as well as steps the company will take to boost infrastructure investment and maintenance.  

"From frequent brownouts to complete power outages — citizens are left without much needed power and often significant financial loss resulting from damaged appliances and spoiled food with no compensation," the petition said.

Representatives with DTE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In an email Friday, Katie Carey, Consumers' director of external relations, noted 2,000 lineworkers from seven states worked shifts as long as 16 hours tackling efforts such as replacing 1,580 poles or 702 transformers and repairing 7,900 downed wires.

Carey added the company has experienced 14 major storm events including last week's, and only two of those left more than 100,000 customers without power. 

"We understand how hard it is to be without power and we are truly grateful for our customers’ patience and cooperation as our crews worked around the clock to restore power following last week’s historic storm," she said. "What we experienced last week really was historic as a top 15 storm for the company as three waves of storm events swept through the state."

The storms last week cut electricity for more than 900,000 customers statewide. DTE, which serves 2.2 million homes and businesses in southeast Michigan, estimated more than 700,000 customers were affected in two waves.

Consumers Energy, which provides electricity to 1.8 million homes and businesses beyond Metro Detroit, said more than 370,000 homes and businesses it served lost power in the storm.

Some area residents spent nearly a week without power.

DTE's response prompted a protest in Detroit this week.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has asked Consumers Energy and DTE Energy to credit customers who lost power.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday also called on the utilities to expand credits.

In their online petition, the Oakland officials said they "understand that severe weather can significantly impact the electrical system and drain valuable energy company resources; however, the frequency and duration of these outages must be addressed and improved."

They also cited "repeated and ongoing power failures" in the region, as well as inadequate tree clearing along power lines and a slow or lacking response from DTE.

“DTE Energy must improve their electrical system and customer service by investing in their infrastructure, equipment, personnel, training and routine maintenance,” Southfield Mayor Ken Siver said. “The increased frequency and duration of these power outages is simply unacceptable.”

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

In 2019, the state Public Service Commission allowed DTE to boost tree trimming, approving a rate increase that authorized it to spend $283 million on those efforts through 2021 for the first three years of a seven-year “surge” program. 

DTE employs 1,200 tree trimmers and is spending $200 million a year trimming trees, The Detroit News reported this week.

Meanwhile, DTE Energy announced Thursday it would issue $100 credits to eligible customers whose power remained off six days after the storms.

The new credit is in addition to the $25 DTE offered to customers with power outages for more than 120 consecutive hours. DTE customers eligible for the $100 can receive both credits, officials said.

Consumers also is offering a $25 credit to eligible customers. 

In December, the state commission approved a $134 million Consumers Energy customer rate increase in 2021 for tree removal, infrastructure upgrades and switching from coal-fueled power. 

Consumers estimates it will spend $84 million on tree trimming this year, up from $54.8 million in 2020. The utility projects spending $5.4 billion in the next five years on upgrades and reducing the length of customer outages by 15%.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters argued that more should be done. 

The group pointed to a report last year by the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, a nonprofit focused on residential energy customers in Michigan, that analyzed 2018 electric utility reliability data from the Energy Information Administration. It found Michigan, without major event outages, ranked second-worst for restoration time. 

“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," Allison said. "DTE and Consumers seem content to rake in massive, windfall profits while families and businesses across Michigan suffer without power."

Reached Thursday night, Matt Helms, public information officer for the Michigan Public Service Commission, said the group is closely monitoring the utilities’ response to recurrent storms.

The commission has also been pushing the companies to increase system reliability. 

"Tree and limb contact with electric lines is by far the leading cause of power outages in Michigan, and we have pushed utilities in recent years to speed up the pace of tree trimming, in addition to approving rate increases to fund replacement of aging electric infrastructure," he said.

Helms also noted the outage credits the company are offering. "That said, we understand the frustration customers have experienced, and we are considering next steps as appropriate," he said.