More outage data sought after 1M Michigan customers lost power in August storms

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Nearly 1 million Michigan electricity customers lost power during a wave of storms that hit the state in August, according to data presented Wednesday to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The tally is a striking total that measures customers, not individuals impacted, but still amounts to 10% of the state's population. It includes 500,000 DTE Energy customers, 372,000 Consumers Energy customers, 72,500 Great Lakes Energy customers and 20,000 Indiana Michigan Power customers, according to the commission's tracking.

The Aug. 10-12 storms brought the most significant electricity outages in the state since 2017, said Charyl Kirkland, an analyst with the Michigan Public Service Commission. The two largest storms in DTE's "135-year history happened in 2017 and this one in August 2021," said Katherine Peretick, one of three commission members. 

The Michigan Public Service Commission meets on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, in Lansing. From left to right are members Katherine Peretick, Dan Scripps and Tremaine Phillips.

"We can no longer see these events as rare," Peretick said. "We need to ensure that we're prepared and use all of the tools that we have to keep our residents safe, informed and without unnecessary financial burden."

Since the storms hit, Michigan officials, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, have called on utilities in the state to reassess how they're protecting the electric grid and how they're handling financial credits offered to customers who lost power.

The public service commission held a special meeting Wednesday morning, during which its members approved an order directing seven utilities to file reports on efforts to manage trees, plans for the future and actions to address bill credits for customers.

The panel, which regulates utilities in the state, also wants data on the zip codes with the most frequent and least frequent outages and information on moving electric lines underground. Peretick said the commission wants more information and transparency to better prepare the system to withstand the "increasingly extreme weather that we are experiencing."

Last week, Whitmer, who appointed the three members of the commission, called for "tangible, immediate action" from Michigan's largest utilities, DTE, Consumers and Indiana Michigan Power.

Consumers Energy has already "more than doubled our investment in grid hardening reliability and increased our forestry investment by more than 60% since 2018," said the company's spokeswoman Katie Carey last week.

"Looking forward, we plan to continue to significantly increase our investments in grid reliability," Carey said. "We have a $5.4 billion electric reliability plan that is a blueprint for serving Michigan today and innovating to reduce the duration and number of power outages."

DTE Energy has said it will issue $100 credits to eligible customers whose power remained off six days after storms struck Michigan.

"Our customers have endured hardships from power outages over the last six weeks," DTE Energy said in a Friday statement. "We’ll be back out in those communities most severely impacted, finalizing repairs, accelerated tree trimming and upgrading critical infrastructure. We understand how important reliable power is for our customers and we are committed to making continued improvements now and in the future."

Michigan ranks fourth highest nationwide for average annual power interruptions, according to the latest complete data from 2019 compiled by the federal Energy Information Administration.

Outages are often caused by major weather events like storms and wildfires. An abundance of trees, estimated to be 14 billion in Michigan, also have been blamed for mass outages. Kirkland, the public service commission analyst, said the August storms spurred "widespread damage," flooding and high winds exceeding 70 miles per hour.

After Wednesday's meeting, commission Chairman Dan Scripps said the panel will be looking for additional information from the utilities going forward.

Extreme weather and trees are helping spur the outages, Scripps said.

"But we can get on top of that," Scripps said. "When you look at the circuits that have been trimmed versus the circuits that are sorta well behind, there's a material difference there.

"We've got to do more of what we're doing. We've got to do it faster. We've got to get on top of the tree trimming."

Staff Writer Kalea Hall contributed.