Michigan Utility Regulators Hear Anger and Frustration Over Outages at Town Hall Meetings

The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) held three town hall meetings this week where they heard hours of testimonials, many of them filled with outrage, about the recent severe power outages. Along with the Michigan House committee hearing last week and a Michigan Senate committee hearing on March 23, the response to the performance of DTE Energy and Consumers Energy during and after the storms continues to be eventful. Before we get into the meetings, we highly recommend anyone interested in these issues read this recent story in the Detroit Free Press by Keith Matheny, which gives a great overview of the data CUB has presented showing that the poor reliability in Michigan is likely the result of the utilities’ performance, and this recent MLive story by Sheri McWhirter, which details the audit the MPSC is planning that will confirm the root causes of Michigan’s reliability problems. 

On March 20, the MPSC held in-person town halls in Dearborn and Jackson, two of the areas hardest hit by the outages, followed by a virtual town hall on March 21. The in-person town halls were so well-attended that the MPSC ran out of time and several members of the public who wanted to speak at those events had to be moved to the virtual event, which itself lasted for two and a half hours, longer than scheduled due to demand.

“We recognize you don’t want to be here, we recognize you have better places to be… than here to voice your frustrations with us,” MPSC Commissioner Tremaine Phillips said at the opening of the virtual town hall.

The customers who spoke used words like “disgusting” and “abominable” to describe their electric service. They pointed out how their rates almost always go up and never down. They talked about having to buy whole home generators or wanting a generator but not being able to afford it.

They also spoke about problems related to electric reliability that might be less common than problems like having to throw out spoiled food, but can be nonetheless devastating. It is not just that customers lost power as a result of the ice storm. There were also power surges that can damage electrical appliances, sometimes permanently.

Tom Rzeznik, the deputy mayor of Wixom, a city in Oakland County, spoke at the hearing and described how in December, hundreds of homes in several subdivisions in Wixom were affected by extreme power surges, leading to hundreds of appliances being made useless. In one subdivision alone, there were $40,000 worth of appliances lost, according to Rzeznik.

“DTE has rejected all claims for reimbursement,” Rzeznik said. The $35 bill credit that DTE offered customers who experienced outages “does not replace a $1,500 refrigerator,” he said.

In the town halls and the House and Senate hearings, there was almost universal scorn toward the measly $35 credit (or $25 as Consumers Energy has offered and the MPSC rules, for now, require. CUB’s proposal would make the credit much more generous). “The credit is a joke. It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing for me to tell my constituents that that's all they are going to get for all the rotten food, all the heartache. I don't think there is any reason why you as a company cannot up that rate,” Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) said during her questioning of DTE Energy President and COO Trevor Lauer at the March 23 Sente Energy and Environment Committee hearing (Lauer did not comment on whether or not DTE would increase the credit).

Towards the end of the virtual town hall, a speaker came forward who was different from those who came before because he was not there to report on his experience with outages. Rather, James Shaw, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 17, wanted to remind the commissioners of the risks taken by the linemen in the field, many of whom are represented by his union. The ice storm this February represents one of the most hazardous types of conditions for linemen. Slippery conditions compound the risks that come with the work done at dangerous heights on poles. It is typical for linemen to work 16-hour shifts in these conditions, and then return home only for their own power to still be out, Shaw explained.

On this blog, CUB often criticizes the utilities in somewhat harsh terms. We stand by our criticisms, but we want to be clear that our criticisms of the management of the utility companies are not related to the impressive conduct of the workers those utilities send into the field.

There are no further town hall meetings or hearings on the horizon. The next question will be: after all these investigations of the aftermath of the outages, how will the MPSC and the legislature act in response to the concerns raised by so many customers?