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Bridge Michigan
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DTE, Consumers Energy to Michigan lawmakers: We need to do better

ice storm
DTE Energy “has to operate better” than it did after an ice storm last month, Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer for DTE, told Michigan lawmakers on Wednesday. “We own that.” (Bridge photo by David Zeman)
  • Thousands of Michigan residents were without power for days
  • Many customers don’t think $35 a day is enough compensation for the inconvenience
  • ‘We are truly sorry,’ a Consumers Energy vice president says

LANSING — Elouise Garley says she never imagined she’d have to use lanterns to light her home after leaving war-torn Liberia more than 20 years ago for Detroit.

“As a teenager, we used (lanterns) as electricity, and I got traumatized by darkness. Whenever it’s dark, I think of the days of my dark teenage years in Liberia,” Garley told a House committee on Wednesday.

“When I came to the USA in 2000, I never thought I would face a developing country crisis: frequent power outages.” 


And yet, last August, Garley said she had to rely on lanterns again to light her home following a DTE Energy outage. She used them again in February after she lost power for four days because of a historic ice storm. 

Garley was among the DTE and Consumers Energy customers who testified  before the House Energy, Communications, and Technology Committee on Wednesday about frequent and long-lasting power outages

Over 450,000 Michigan residents lost electricity, some for nearly a week following an ice storm on Feb. 22. The storm caused school closings, canceled flights and slippery road conditions throughout the Upper Midwest. 

The same storm caused far fewer outages in neighboring states even though they received a similar amount of ice or even more snow.

State lawmakers are scrutinizing the outages, proposed rate increases and continual profits for the utilities. Several also expressed outrage that Michigan policy only allows up to $35 per day in compensation for those who lose power.

Representatives from Consumers Energy, which has 1.8 million electric customers in Michigan, and DTE, which has 2.3 million, testified at the hearing.

“The system has to operate better, and we own that,” Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer for DTE, told lawmakers.

“I understand the failure that we had with this ice storm. There is no amount of engineering that I can put on an electrical system that’s going to keep our electrical system from failing with three quarters of an inch of ice, but we must do better with the wicked weather we have coming at us.” 

Consumers Energy was equally apologetic. 

“We recognize the impact that this has had on our customers, we appreciate their patience as they have gone forward, we are truly sorry, and we will learn from this as we go forward,” said Chris Laird, vice president for electric operations for the company.

DTE’s Lauer said the problem isn’t the frequency of the outages but the duration, which can be alleviated with more investment into improving the grids, tree-trimming near lines and other upgrades.

“As we look at the overall weather patterns that have come into the state of Michigan, all I can do is continue to rebuild the electric grid as fast as I can against these weather patterns,” Lauer said

The hearing came days after Bridge Michigan reported that DTE imposed a series of cuts in recent months to ensure it ended the year with a $1.2 billion profit. 

Under questioning from Democrats, Lauer said the cuts — which include grass mowing at substations — don’t “affect the reliability for our customers." 

DTE is planning $45 billion in upgrades over the next 10 years, but has asked state regulators to increase rates to customers by 9.5 percent to 14.5 percent.

“We believe if we do the right thing for our employees they’re going to do the right things for our customers,” Lauer said. “We have to offer reliable service in order to get the outcome from our investors that we expect.”  

Michigan residents pay the 11th highest rate for electricity in the U.S, according to the website Statisa.

Both utility companies offered credits of up to $35 for residents who had been out of power for more than four days, but lawmakers and customers say that’s not nearly enough.

The city of Highland Park lost power to fire stations, city hall and senior centers after the storm, Mayor Glenda McDonald told the committee.

She called the $35 per day compensation a “disgrace.”

“I cannot run a city, however small it is, without power,” McDonald said. 

During a three-year-long process, the Michigan Public Service Commission came up with a new set of compensation rules, which will be implemented next week, requiring both utility companies to automatically pay $35 in addition to paying $35 for each day a customer is out of service for more than five days. 

“I realize that it’s not enough to fully compensate customers, but we do think it’s a meaningful step in the right direction compared to the existing rules,” said Commissioner Katherine Peretick, during her testimony 

State Rep. Helena Scott, D-Detroit, chairs the energy committee that hosted the hearing and expressed concerns that outages disproportionately impact lower-income customers in southeast Michigan.

“It's important that they have reliable, consistent service even in the weather conditions that we have. We live in Michigan, (so) winter storms will happen.”   

Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that the Michigan Public Service Commission will host town halls in Dearborn and Jackson on March 20 for residents to voice their concerns about recent power outages. 

The first town hall is 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at American 1 Credit Union Event Center 128 W. Ganson, Jackson. The second is 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Fordson High School Auditorium 13800 Ford Rd. in Dearborn.

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