'Absolutely awful': Nessel holds Novi town hall on power outages

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the context of an argument between Novi City Manager Pete Augur and Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Novi — Residents expressed their frustrations with repeated power outages this summer at a town hall organized by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, but not before there was a debate about the format. 

At the forum held at the Novi Civic Center, Erin Pineda said her small business, 27th Letter Books in Detroit, had suffered losses amounting to thousands of dollars following a thunderstorm in August, part of which she said was simply lost revenue due to the ensuing power outage. 

In August, nearly one million customers lost power after one of several thunderstorms this summer hammered parts of the state's electric grid. Some residents had their lights off for over a week while DTE and Consumers Energy employees and out-of-state contractors worked to restore power. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel addresses the crowd during her Power Outage Listening Tour held at the Novi Civic Center, Monday.

Others criticized the power companies — mainly DTE Energy and Consumers Energy — and urged more regulation to trim their influence in setting policy.

Greg Woodring, an organizer with Ann Arbor For Public Power, blamed the utilities for the outages and said the weather events would continue to escalate unless decisive action was taken by lawmakers to limit their influence. 

"We are allowing them to drive drunk into Armageddon," Woodring said. "We need to immediately take the keys away from them." 

Nessel shared their frustrations.

"(We are hearing) horrible stories from people involving seniors who are having issues with their oxygen, who have respiratory issues that are just absolutely awful," the Democratic attorney general said.

The forum got off to a rocky start when Nessel and Novi officials couldn't agree on how best to listen to residents on the "Power Outage Listening Tour." Nessel's office in August created an online initiative designed to receive feedback from residents about the state's electricity companies. 

Novi Mayor Bob Gatt recounted his own experience with lost electricity, saying it had happened in his home six times this year. 

Gatt said the city hoped to advocate for stricter legislation to hold power companies' "feet to the fire," requiring DTE Energy and others to make it easier for customers to get reimbursed for losses incurred during outages, including damaged foods and medication. 

"We do know that Michigan residents deserve better electricity, reliability and resiliency," said Katherine Peretick, a commissioner at the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates utility providers and will eventually decide whether to impose new rules on the companies.

City Manager Pete Augur then got into a heated back and forth with Nessel, echoing Gatt's earlier request of a moderated conversation with the attorney general and Peretick. Nessel said she wanted to listen instead to residents' experiences with power outages, which the event announcement on the city's website also advertised. 

"I want to hear from you, I don’t want to talk at you," said Nessel, whose prepared statement declared that utility services for state residents have become worse as their rates have risen.  

Nessel commended DTE's request to spend $70 million on tree trimming over the next three years to mitigate the effect of extreme weather, but said she would like to see the company also dedicate money for consumers' immediate needs. 

Erin Pineda, owner of 27th Letter Books in Detroit, said she lost thousands of dollars during summer power outages during a forum organized by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Novi Civic Center on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

The first-term attorney general referred to the power companies' "regulated monopoly" in the market, criticizing the system in which residents do not get to choose from which company to receive power as well as the companies' ability to make financial contributions to political campaigns. 

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, said he would "absolutely" work to pass laws in the state Senate to dismantle what was described as a monopoly and ban campaign donations.