New MPSC Order Is Step Toward Turning Around Unacceptably Poor Electric Reliability

A recloser is a type of electrical equipment used to automatically detect faults on a line. Source: TheEnergeticEngineer, Wikimedia Foundation.

Big news coming out of the Michigan Public Service Commission on Aug. 25 for anyone who wants to avoid more electric reliability crises like the hundreds of thousands of Michigan utility customers who have lost power during thunderstorms over the past few weeks!

The MPSC approved an order that mandates Michigan’s investor-owned utilities submit reports detailing all the tree trimming, grid hardening, and other distribution grid-related spending measures each utility has enacted, and providing a host of other information. These reports should help the public and stakeholder groups like CUB scrutinize the utilities’ planning and strategies.

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MPSC To Move Faster on New Protections Following Outages, Commissioner Phillips Says

Following recent mass power outages after severe thunderstorms, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is accelerating efforts to implement new protections for Michigan utility customers, MPSC Commissioner Tremaine Phillips said in a meeting with stakeholder groups Aug. 18.

Those efforts include making it easier for customers to access credits that reduce their electric bills following long outages, a step that the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan has been emphasizing for more than two years (including in this space, such as here, and in this report).

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Michigan, LIHEAP and Energy Affordability

Photo by Brendan Wood, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0

Which is better: helping a lot of utility customers with their bills a little bit, or giving a lot of assistance to a smaller number of customers? That turns out to be a key question when looking at how Michigan implements the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) compared to how neighboring states implement the federal program. The short story is: Michigan tends to give assistance to more households than its neighbors Ohio and Illinois do, but each of those households tends to receive less assistance than customers in those other states. 

Considering the hoops people unfortunately jump through to get any assistance, is the lower sum enough to make it worth the hassle?

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More Spending on the Grid Means Better Power? Not Always

 Consumers Energy’s offices at One Energy Plaza, Jackson. Source. Licensed Under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0.

In a recent op-ed in the Lansing State Journal, Citizens Utility Board (CUB) of Michigan Executive Director Amy Bandyk writes that it is “the utilities themselves,” rather than other alleged culprits like rooftop solar customers, that “have made our electricity more expensive and unreliable by failing to invest in the distribution system wisely.” What exactly do we mean by “wise” investments into the electric grid?

New testimony filed on behalf of CUB and other groups in Consumers Energy’s electric rate case strikes at the heart of why Michigan has such a problem with electric reliability, and what to do about it.

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New Database Reveals Key Figures on Utility Customer Arrears and Shutoffs

A little over a year ago we were concerned about the pandemic causing thousands of utility customers to not be able to pay their bills, creating a huge backlog of customer debt. While we know that many of those fears did indeed come to pass, it has been difficult to determine the extent to which customers became indebted because the data from the utilities is far from transparent. 

Now, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is releasing a public database that hopefully can make this information more accessible. This “COVID-19 Utility Customer Data” site, available here, “features a database of regularly updated information on the number of regulated utility customers whose service has been shut off for nonpayment and customers who've had their service restored, as well as the number of customers enrolled in assistance plans and information on the number of customers who are 30, 60, 90 or more days past due on their utility bills,” the MPSC said in a news release.

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Midwest Governors Call For Transmission Planning for Cleaner, More Affordable Energy

Source. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Moving toward more affordable, reliable and clean energy is not just about where the energy comes from, be that wind, solar, natural gas, hydro or another source. Just as important is how to get the energy from where it is generated to the consumer. Most people have a basic understanding of how a wind turbine, a solar panel or a gas-burning plant works, but the web of transmission lines that criss-cross the country is more mysterious.

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MPSC Affordability Collaborative Sets Out Goals, Schedules Next Meeting

Photo by Brendan Wood, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0

Imagine your sole source of heating in the midst of a harsh Michigan winter is your kitchen’s oven. That is not just a hypothetical situation. Bethany Stutzman, community solutions director at United Way of Jackson County, said she has seen it happen when visiting a client, and it is especially worrying when there are children running around with an open oven.

Her point, raised during a panel discussion of affordability experts at the June 16 meeting of the Michigan Public Service Commission’s (MPSC) Energy Affordability and Accessibility Collaborative, was not to shock, but to illustrate the negative effects that financial burdens from high energy bills can have—effects that cannot be easily captured in terms of dollars and cents. As another panelist, Shama Mounzer of Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, said, “if you are unable to keep your family warm, that is causing you to have a financial burden, and that is causing you to have anxiety.” That anxiety in turn causes households to try to keep warm through unsafe ways, Mounzer said. 

(See this previous blog post introducing the collaborative.)

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New Efforts Aiming At Protection of Valuable Consumer Energy Data

There has been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for “smart” energy technologies that can empower consumers to cut their energy bills, improve their efficiency and use more clean energy through smart thermostats, rooftop solar, battery storage and more. The fuel for all of these tools is data. Data in easily accessible digital form is more important than ever, but a lot of our utility bills are still stuck in paper or PDF formats.

In addition, we have to make sure that more data being available does not violate people’s privacy and cause data to end up in the wrong hands. CUB of Illinois has had success in implementing a framework to provide access to while also protecting customer data in that state. 

As part of the MI Power Grid initiative to modernize Michigan’s energy regulations, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) has convened a Customer Education and Participation workgroup. This group just started a series of public meetings that examine questions around data access. The first of these was on May 25, and it laid out how lack of data access is holding back the growth of energy efficiency and other developments in Michigan.

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CUB Executive Director Amy Bandyk Speaks On Panel At Michigan Environmental Justice Conference

The Citizens Utility Board (CUB) of Michigan talks a lot in this space about how Michigan has unaffordable energy and how lower-income communities are especially burdened by high energy bills. How does Michigan, as a community, address these inequities (which fall disproportionately on communities of color)? What’s more, as the state and other players try to modernize the electric grid and transition to cleaner energy in order to meet the recently-announced net-zero emissions goals, how do we avoid making the inequitable burden worse? To address these questions, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) just held the multi-day Michigan Environmental Justice Conference, which was titled “Rebuilding Trust, Reimagining Justice and Removing Barriers.”

The whole event is on YouTube and features speakers including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. CUB Executive Director Amy Bandyk was honored to speak on a panel along with EGLE Climate and Energy Advisor Dr. Brandy Brown and Dr. Tony Reames, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

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Building Codes: Little Noticed, But Have Big Impacts On Your Utility Bills

Photo Source: Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance

A very simple way to save money on your utility bill is to use less energy in the first place. It can be difficult, however, to change one’s habits around energy use. That is why efficiency upgrades to living environments—better insulation to keep the house airtight, high-performance windows that maximize sunlight in winter and minimize it in summer, “smart” controls for lighting and appliances, to name a few examples—are so effective. They are “set it and forget it” ways to passively reduce energy consumption.

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