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Senate committee hears calls for more regulation of power companies after damage from severe storms

Downed tree
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Ice and heavy snow caused power to fail for hundreds of thousands of people. Trees and limbs fell on power lines over much of the state.

People are not happy about the frequency and the length of power outages in Michigan.

The state’s two largest electric utility companies and the Michigan Public Service Commission gave presentations to the Senate Energy and Environment Committee on Thursday. They addressed why the power is knocked out by storms so often and stays off for so long.

Just last month, DTE Energy put out a release trumpeting that "customers experienced 21% fewer power interruptions in 2022 and outage duration time decreased by nearly 40%."

Then widespread ice storms and heavy snowfall caused innumerable trees and tree limbs to fall, some of them taking power lines down with them. The storms also caused some power poles to break. More than 200,000 DTE customers lost power. Some of them waited days before the lights came on again.

On March 1, Consumers Energy reported 403,000 people lost power because of the ice and snow.

About 100,000 other homes and businesses with different power companies also lost power.

Some people whose power was restored after the ice storm then lost power again a few days later because of heavy, wet snow.

After hearing the presentations of the utilities and the commission, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment Sean McCann indicated the issue is going to need a lot of urgent work and possibly changes to how regulation of the industries is conducted.

“Ultimately we're collecting policy ideas that may or may not become law at the end of the day. We can listen to these issues many times. But if we don't ultimately put ideas into action, into law, then we're just doing the listening part and not doing the action part,” Senator McCann said.

He added that things get very technical very quickly when trying to come up with a process to harden Michigan's electric infrastructure, but the ultimate goal is stronger accountability measures.

In February, Governor Gretchen Whitmer was critical of what she said were too-frequent and sometimes long-lasting outages.

“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. In a statement to news media, Whitmer said it was "unacceptable."

Dan Scripps, chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates the state's power companies, echoed that sentiment. “Clearly, the word 'unacceptable' is the word that is used most often for the number of outages that we've seen in the last five weeks, the duration of those outages, the number of people who are interrupted," he said.

Scripps said the utilities realize that climate change is challenging assumptions about the durability of the transmission grid and the reliability of service.

“The weather patterns even in the last 50 years have changed dramatically. And when you've got historic events happening every other year, it seems they're no longer historic. This is just the new normal. And we need a grid that's prepared for it,” Scripps said.

The public service commission is also negotiating a new model for reimbursing customers for losses due to power failures. It’s been a one-time credit of $25 in certain circumstances.

“$25 isn’t going to cover, you know, the cost of your groceries, or if you have to relocate, or if you have to throw out medicine. It’s just absurdly low,” said Amy Bandyk with the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) last summer after storms knocked out power over wide areas.

And even if eligible for the money, not everybody is aware they can apply for the credit. Many don’t.

The Citizens Utility Board suggested utilities pay customers $2 an hour while power was off. That's deemed too expensive by the utility companies. It appears the utilities would be willing to pay $35 in rebates for consecutive days the power is off — again, under certain circumstances.

After those severe summer storms last year, the utility companies assured the public they would step up tree trimming (fallen limbs are the leading cause of outages) and start replacing smaller-diameter power poles with bigger ones. And they’ve done that.

But the transmission systems of DTE Energy and Consumers Energy are huge. It will take years if not decades to improve the grid system to the point it’s strong enough to stand up to increasingly intense storms.

The Michigan Public Service Commission wants to see why some other states seem to be doing better at keeping the lights on. It plans to hire a company to audit the grid in Michigan to see how it compares to other states.

“It’s really trying to benchmark to other similarly situated utilities across the Midwest, similar weather, similar service territories,” said Scripps, the public service commission chair.

“What are they doing that we’re not doing? What lessons can we apply in Michigan that may have been used in other states to better effect,” he said.

The agency hopes to have a final report next year.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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