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MPSC on utilities' response to storm outages: "Doing what we've always done just isn't cutting it."

Work being done on Orchard Lake Rd where a power pole fell.
DTE Energy
DTE Energy technician repairing a downed power pole.

In the wake of large-scale outages from a storm on August 29, the Michigan Public Service Commission has approved a third-party independent audit of all equipment and operations in the distribution system of DTE Energy and Consumers Energy.

The utilities must also report to the commission on their compliance with regulations and past commission orders governing utilities’ response to outages and downed lines.

Commission Chair Dan Scripps said the August 29 storm knocked out power to close to half a million people. He added there's been too little improvement since the commission began an investigation after last summer's back-to back storm-related outages.

"The first time a major storm rolled through, we had 5,000 downed wires, we had half a million customers that lost power. If that was the first test since we had begun work a year ago, it's hard to say that we passed the test," said Scripps.

Scripps noted the frequency and duration of outages for the utilities has not been reduced in a decade. And he said it's important to figure out why the utilities' efforts so far, like expedited tree-trimming programs, aren't working, since things will only get worse due to climate change.

"Doing what we've always done just isn't cutting it," Scripps said. "and I think that's even truer as we look to the future."

Scripps said he doesn't think it's simply a matter of asking ratepayers for more money for storm response. He noted that Lansing's Board of Water and Light was able to dramatically improve its storm response after a 2013 ice storm left 40% of its customers without power for an extended period — without big hikes in ratepayers' bills.

In a statement, DTE Energy said:

We share the concern of the Michigan Public Service Commission and look forward to providing a full accounting of storm damage, safety precautions and recovery efforts. We will also detail our long-term plans to address DTE Energy’s needed infrastructure improvements to help reduce and prevent electric service outages in the future. 

Consumers Energy said in its statement:

Safety is our top priority at Consumers Energy, not just for our coworkers but for everyone in our state. We appreciate the MPSC’s interest in ensuring that energy providers are taking steps to protect and inform people before, during and after severe storms, and improve electric system reliability and resilience. We look forward to working with the MPSC and focusing on the well-being of the people we serve.

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

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.