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Michigan utilities need to spend even more on tree trimming, House energy chair says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Officials from Michigan's top electric utilities outlined plans Wednesday to increase spending on tree trimming after a wave of widespread power outages, but a key lawmaker said he intends to prod them to invest even more.

Rep. Joe Bellino, chairman of the state House Energy Committee, held his second oversight hearing on August outages that left about 1 million electricity customers without power in Michigan. Afterward, the Monroe Republican said he will take more testimony in the coming weeks and will encourage DTE, Consumers and Indiana Michigan Power to increase their spending on tree trimming.

"They’re backlogged in tree trimming, and trees keep growing," Bellino said.

"We're getting more storms and they're worse," he added. "So we've got to spend more money."

A DTE line worker works on power lines in West Bloomfield on Aug. 16, 2021. Officials from Michigan's top electric utilities outlined plans Wednesday to increase spending on tree trimming after a wave of widespread power outages, but a key lawmaker said he intends to prod them to invest even more.

On Wednesday, Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer for DTE Electric subsidiary, and Guy Packard, vice president of electric operations for Consumers, appeared before Bellino's committee. Packard labeled the August storms that caused widespread outages "historic" and said they were the seventh most destructive in the company's 135-year history.

Consumers is planning to spend $1 billion annually to improve reliability, including increasing efforts to trim trees, which are the No. 1 cause of outages, he said. The Jackson-based company plans to spend $84 million on forestry programs this year and $94 million next year. Consumers is working up to eventually spending $120 million annually, he said.

On Sept. 1, DTE announced an additional $70 million in spending on tree trimming. That amount is on top of the company's annual budget of $190 million for trimming, Lauer told lawmakers.

"This increased investment will help to bring the reliability improvements driven by tree trimming to more customers faster," said Lauer, whose DTE subsidiary serves 2.2 million consumers in southeast Michigan. 

In an interview, Bellino noted the $70 million announcement by DTE.

“There’s got to be money sitting somewhere else for the other companies to do the same thing," he said.

Wednesday's hearing lasted about 90 minutes with lawmakers occasionally clashing with the utility executives. Lauer acknowledged that his company needs to "rebuild trust" with customers. About 500,000 DTE customers lost power in the August storms, according to data from the Michigan Public Service Commission.

"Our customers are disappointed in our company and rightfully so based on the experience they had," Lauer said.

At one point, Rep. Patrick Outman, R-Six Lakes, asked Lauer if he would commit to improving reliability in the distribution system without raising customers' rates.

"I will make a commitment to this committee that I will continue to improve reliability for our customers," Lauer responded. "I’ll make a commitment that I will continue to increase the amount of renewable generation.

"But I will not make a commitment, unless something fundamentally changes in the economics for the state of Michigan, the growth patterns, I can’t do that without raising rates."

Afterward, Bellino said "someone" has to pay for the improvements.

"We'll see what we can squeeze out of it," the chairman said.

Rep, Joe Bellino Jr.

Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township, asked if any DTE officials had been fired or demoted because of power outages.

"I would like to fire my entire weather department, but I haven’t," Lauer joked in response.

Since the August 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.

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.

cmauger@detroitnews.com