Lawmakers grill utility DTE, Consumers Energy over power outages

Andres Gutierrez/CBS Detroit


LANSING, MI (CBS DETROIT) – Weeks after severe winter weather knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of Michiganders, leaving them in the dark for days, the leaders of DTE and Consumers Energy faced an erratic response from lawmakers on Wednesday.

Both utilities issued a mea culpa, apologizing to their customers for the outage and explaining to committee members what they are currently doing to prevent another one.

“I can’t run a town, no matter how small, without power,” said Glenda McDonald, mayor of Highland Park.

McDonald presented a series of examples of how her city handled several power outages in recent weeks.

“Our fire department went out. The generator didn’t start, so that’s dangerous for the city. They had to lift the doors when there was a fire. The police’s technology went down. We had to go to an outdated in to make sure that we got our calls. City Hall had to close twice,” McDonald said.

Her testimony was one of many at Wednesday’s hearing that brought DTE, Consumers Energy and its regulators, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) into one room.

“We cannot and will not accept that this is our new normal,” said Representative Helena Scott, chair of the Energy, Communications and Technology Committee.

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After apologizing, DTE president Trevor Lauer said there are three solutions they are working on: prune trees, do preventive maintenance and invest in upgrading the system.

There are still parts of the area that use infrastructure from the early 20th century.

They also want to move more utilities underground in the coming years.

“We have a plan that we’re executing on it. We just need to keep accelerating that. We started with a drastic acceleration seven years ago. And we’re not accelerating at the pace needed to provide the reliability to our customers.” Lauer said.

Lauer acknowledged that the $35 credit offered to customers who have been without power for several days is not enough.

The Michigan Public Service Commission said they recently revised their rules for those credits, so customers who have been in the dark for at least 16 hours will automatically receive a $35 credit plus an additional $35 for each day they are without power.

“I realize this isn’t enough to fully compensate customers. But we do think it’s a meaningful step in the right direction,” said Michigan Public Service Commission commissioner Katherine Peretick.

“We also hold ourselves fully accountable,” said Tonya Berry, senior vice president of transformation and engineering at Consumers Energy.

Some in the audience laughed at that comment, but MSPC plans to hire industry experts to conduct an external assessment of the utilities.

“And it’s going to look at the technical side, so the physical infrastructure that the utilities have, as well as the programs and processes that are in place for both distribution system investment, maintenance and storm response,” Peretick said.

“Governor Whitmer wants Michigan to become the leader in electric vehicle technology. I was out of power for 10 days out of 14, without electricity; I wouldn’t accept an EV right now if you gave me one,” said Cathy Russ, a Royal Oak DTE customer.

No action was taken at the end of the hearing.

Rep. Scott said they plan to organize a working group of lawmakers and the Michigan Public Service Commission to develop new policies they can enforce.