Can infrastructure upgrades, more utility regulation prevent future power outages?

Michigan ranks among top 5 worst states in utility performance study
livonia ice storm 2
Posted at 2:27 PM, Mar 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-01 17:18:26-05

(WXYZ) — There is no question the ice storm the metro Detroit area experienced last week was severe. Tree branches were seen tangled in wires, knocking out power. But, are the outages hundreds of thousands of people had to endure the result of a systemic problem?

Michael Langwald cleans out the fridge at his 80-year-old mom and 88-year-old dad’s house in West Bloomfield.

The power was out for six days. He says the $35 credit DTE is paying is almost an insult.

"One $35 credit is basically a drop in the bucket for something like this. This is basically a morgue fridge or freezer," said Langwald.

While he jokes about the volume of food in the massive freezer — he says this is serious.

"In their case especially, they have some circulation problems, so you need to have a warm environment," he said.

While this was an ice storm more severe than any we have seen in decades, Langwald says the power simply goes out too often.

It isn’t just his anecdotal experience.

The Citizens Utility Board looked at affordability, sustainability and reliability in the nation’s 50 states and Washington D.C.

It ranked Michigan 46th overall — and 43rd for reliability.

When you take a look at the average duration in 2020 of power outages per customer, the average customer in Michigan lost power for 411 minutes in 2020.

Only 16 states lost power for longer on average.

We asked Vice President at DTE Electric Ryan Stowe this week why we ranked so poorly.

"Lots of metrics you can look at. In any event we know it is not good enough, especially as we get an increasing severity of weather. Here in just the last couple years we have seen some of the most extreme weather that I have seen in my 20 year career. It is something we are going to continue to harden the grid. That is going to take investment," said Stowe.

Dan Scripps is Chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission.

"I think it has been a series of underinvestment over the years," said Scripps of the ranking.

He says the commission is working to ensure utilities invest in reliability.

But Scripps says that doesn’t mean rate all rate hikes requested will be approved.

After all, DTE told investors during an earnings conference call last week its earnings are increasing.

"We need to make sure our utilities are accountable to their customers and not just their shareholders," said Amy Bandyk, who serves as the Executive Director of the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) of Michigan.

The board is pushing for performance based regulation.

"We think we need a new model for how DTE is regulated, where they have incentives to perform better for their residential customers and penalties if they don’t," she said.

Bandyk says such regulation has seen early success in Hawaii.

Langwald says it's an interesting idea. To him it is clear a flat $35 penalty for extended outages is not enough of a disincentive.

"There has to be strong disincentives. I think that might light the fire under DTE's feet," said Langwald.

If you'd like to file a complaint with the MPSC, click here.