DTE and Consumers Energy keep blaming the weather for Michigan’s power outages

What if the problem is them?

Feb 27, 2023 at 12:13 pm
click to enlarge We know we get storms in Michigan, but utility companies act surprised every time we do. - Shutterstock
We know we get storms in Michigan, but utility companies act surprised every time we do.

For the 93,000 or so Michigan households that have reportedly been without power going on five days as of Monday morning, utility companies DTE Energy and Consumers Energy have a message: we see you, we hear you, and we will do nothing to prevent this from happening again, at least anytime soon.

If that seems overly negative, well, how else are we supposed to feel at this point?

More than 730,000 Michigan homes lost power during Wednesday’s massive ice storm, far more than any other Midwest state. At least one person died: Paw Paw firefighter Ethan Quillen, 28, was electrocuted to death on Wednesday by a downed wire reportedly owned by Consumers Energy.

In a Thursday statement, DTE Energy blamed the outages on “the worst ice event that we have experienced in the past 50 years.”

“The combination of snow, freezing rain and wind has caused branches and trees to fall, pulling down DTE power lines,” the company said. “The heavy weight of ice buildup — comparable to that of a baby grand piano — has also caused power lines to fall, for a total of nearly 4,000 downed power lines.”

Of course, everyone in southeast Michigan knows that far less than a baby grand piano can take down our energy grid. In fact, around here, massive power outages have long felt like a feature, not a bug.

Recall that more than 850,000 customers in Michigan lost power in August 2021 due to wind storms. The same thing happened to some 800,000 households in July 2019. And in 2017, nearly 1 million households lost power in a March wind storm, which DTE Energy called the “largest weather event” in the company’s history.

For those keeping score, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a winter ice storm, or the spring wind, or the summer rain. Our power grid fails seemingly every time the wind blows, which, in Michigan, is a lot. At this point, the utility companies’ insistence that they are truly blindsided by these weather events is sounding about as credible as Tim Robinson’s man in a hot dog costume insisting he wasn’t the guy who crashed that hot dog-shaped car.

Research suggests that Michigan’s utility companies are uniquely awful. Recently, the watchdog group Citizens Utility Board of Michigan ranked the state’s utility companies among the least reliable in the nation, and in its most recent report, consumer website Choose Energy ranked DTE Energy dead last for reliability. Last year, responding to mounting public frustration with DTE and Consumers Energy, the Michigan Public Service Commission ordered an independent audit into the reliability of the companies’ infrastructure. The results of the investigation have yet to be made public.

Democrats, who now hold a trifecta of power in the state for the first time in 40 years, say they’re pissed.

“The length of this outage, in freezing temperatures, is completely unacceptable,” state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Royal Oak Democrat, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “The frequency of outages and lack of reliability is completely unacceptable. I hear you and I’m as frustrated and angry as you are.”

For those keeping score, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a winter ice storm, or the spring wind, or the summer rain. Our power grid fails seemingly every time the wind blows.

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“Everyone understands the damage the storm did, but some parts of the state have long had reliability issues,” U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Holly Democrat, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. State House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash, a Hamtramck Democrat, called for committee hearings. “There have been people left in the freezing cold,” Aiyash told The Detroit News on Sunday. “It is my hope that my colleagues in Lansing will call DTE in for questioning and have committee hearings so they can answer to the public.”

Lawmakers had recent opportunities to take action on these issues, and passed them up. Last year, legislators introduced HB 6043, which would have set a formula for utility companies to reimburse customers and local governments for service interruptions, and HB 6045, which would provide compensation to customers who experience repeated outages. It’s notable that nearly all state lawmakers have taken a total of $1.26 million in campaign money from DTE Energy’s executives, lobbyists, and PACs. Attorney General Dana Nessel has called for more transparency regarding the corporations’ political spending, and on Monday, she said the companies should automatically credit customers impacted by the outages.

“While this ice storm appears to have been one of the worst we have seen in many years, winter weather is an expected occurrence in Michigan. Residents deserve a grid they can rely on,” Nessel said in a statement. “Despite asking for record increases time and time again, our utilities have failed to adequately invest in their own infrastructure or prepare for these storm events, choosing instead to leave ratepayers in the dark. Our current service quality standards are not sufficient, and it is incumbent on the utilities to right this wrong.”

To add insult to injury, Michiganders pay some of the nation’s highest rates for these subpar services, and over the last decade or so DTE Energy and Consumers have increased residents’ costs by 50% while costs for industrial customers remained flat — and the companies’ executives take in millions in compensation.

On Thursday, as tens of thousands of its customers were shivering cold in the dark, DTE Energy held its Q4 earning call, where it boasted operating earnings of $1.2 billion for the year, an increase over 2021. The company also said it invested more than $1 billion into updating its electric grid and trimming trees near power lines, which resulted in 21% fewer power interruptions since 2021, with the average outage duration time down more than 40%.

“It’s clear that as we invest in a grid, our customers benefit with improved performance and more reliable power,” CEO Gerardo Norcia said.

Well, no shit!

The money motive of these companies has caused some to question their priorities. “DTE made $1.1 billion in profits last year. They are choosing their profits over your family,” U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, wrote on Twitter. “Enough is enough. We need public power in Michigan.”

About one-third of the nation’s power is generated by publicly owned utilities, as opposed to for-profit corporations like DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, and U.S. Department of Energy data shows public utility customers on average pay less each month and spend less time without power annually.

“If you have public control, then the utilities are accountable to voters and ratepayers instead of investors,” state representative Yousef Rahbi, an Ann Arbor-area Democrat, told Metro Times in 2019. “Right now, DTE and Consumers don’t care about customers — they care about profits and bottom lines.”

In progressive Ann Arbor, an organization called Ann Arbor for Public Power is investigating whether the city could buy out DTE Energy and assume control of its infrastructure. A feasibility report is expected to be completed in June.

Ann Arbor had the Hash Bash decades before Michigan voters legalized weed, so maybe they’re once again ahead of the curve here.

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