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Whitmer: Winter storm outage part of a pattern of disinvestment

Downed tree
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
More than 700,000 customers lost power during last week's storms. Many were out for days.

Widespread power outages due to last week’s ice storm should spur action on re-building and improving infrastructure. That's according to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Last week’s ice storm left hundreds of thousands of households without power for days through freezing temperatures. That’s as giant floods and downed electric lines due to torrential storms have become more common due to climate change.

Whitmer said preparing for future events won’t be easy or cheap.

“This is the culmination of old infrastructure with climate events that are happening with greater ferocity and greater frequency,” she said. “It is frustrating that we are here again,” she said. “I know that residents are frustrated. I know that they (utilities) are making progress, but we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got accountability here and that we’ve got to move faster as these climate events happen more and more often.”

Work by the state’s two largest utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, to have customers re-connected is supposed to wrap up sometime Monday.

Whitmer said she wants the Michigan Public Service Commission to take the lead on developing a response to prevent future widespread outages. She said the utility-regulating agency has the expertise. The agency is led by three commissioners appointed by Whitmer.

The chair of the commission, Dan Scripps, agreed that the grid needs work. "The reality is, we're not where we need to be. We don't have the level of reliability that Michiganders expect and deserve from their electric system."

Paying for upgrades can be contentious, though. Scripps said Michigan's utilities are applying for federal funding to offset the cost. DTE Energy also has a rate increase case pending before the public service commission.

"I'm prevented by law from discussing open rate cases that we have in front of us," Scripps said. "But at a larger threshold question in terms of the level of investment that's needed for reliability, we're looking at everything, and we know that the system is not where it's going to be, and we're going to turn over every rock until we get to the solutions that are available in a lot of other parts of the country."

"The reality is that a lot of folks are also struggling with rates that are among the highest in the Midwest," said Scripps.

Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are among Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.