Outages and unreliability for Michigan’s power grid could be addressed by state legislature

DTE Energy proposed rate hike

Severe thunderstorms rolled through Southeast Michigan earlier this week, packing winds in excess of 70 mph that knocked down branches, overturned trees, and snapped power poles.

At its peak, over 260,000 DTE Energy customers were left without power.

The widespread outage comes as the utility is asking the Michigan Public Service Commission for an 8.8 percent rate hike on residential customers. DTE says the increase is needed to fund a modernization of the power grid and improve reliability.

Activists and progressive politicians have been critical of the proposed increase due to its disproportionate impact on low-income residents.

Democratic State Representative Abraham Aiyash of Hamtramck tells WDET’s Russ McNamara that widespread outages are too frequent.

“Unfortunately, this is an issue that’s all too common, but doesn’t get any less frustrating every time we’re out of power,” Aiyash says. “This time does seem a helluva lot worse than last summer, as a lot of folks are getting quoted five, six sometimes a week before they get their power back on which is just simply unacceptable. Given the rates that we pay here in Michigan.”

DTE Energy says the rate increases needed to prevent widespread outages like the one we’re currently experiencing. So should residents just kind of bite the bullet and pay up to improve reliability into something that has not been reliable?

No. DTE has raised rates to $770 million since 2015, which is the second highest rate increase of any investor on utility in the country. Additionally, they got over $200 million in Cares Act dollars. So the question that folks have, and the question that I have is, what is all this money going for? You know, they’re receiving millions and millions of dollars from customers every single year. And we are not seeing an increase of utility reliability from DTE from 2015. Until now, $770 million. I would argue that our energy and our reliability for our utilities has gotten worse over that time period. So the question everyone in my district is asking over on the east side of Detroit and Hamtramck is what the hell is all this money going for? If it’s not helping improve liability? And why are you asking for some more increase? When we’re not seeing the results of that increase benefiting us in our day to day lives?

Is there anything brewing right now in the state legislature to hold utilities accountable in Michigan?

Yeah, so earlier this year, Representative Rabhi, [and] myself introduced a multi build package around consumer protections. For those who are dealing with utilities, one that would provide automatic payouts, anytime there’s a power outage, and you’d be paid per hour, so it’s $5 per hour. And then once you reached the third day of a power outage, that price goes up to $12, the payment goes up to $25 an hour to get your power back. Additionally, it would loop in renters, and local governments that have to open up cooling and heating centers that they’re not going to have to foot the bill. For those that are losing medication, you know, I have a constituent right now that says they get shots for their arthritis. Each shot is $3,000. Now insurance covers that. But in this case, three of the shots that he needed this month, have now spoiled because he didn’t have refrigeration. And he’s unsure if that his insurance company would pay for an additional couple units of that shot for his health.

So we have legislation that would help protect folks in that. And then additionally, it would ensure that you investor owned utility companies are not going to transfer the cost on to consumers through rate hikes. So if they have to pay us all back for a power outage, they can’t turn around and say actually, we need to increase your rates in order to deal with that cost. And then there are other things regarding public accountability as they go forth to the Michigan Public Service Commission, and to ensure that the credits must be paid out of the profits of the utility company and not through the utilities. And then if you are someone that deals with chronic outages, you would also get payments as well. So this is some of the stuff that we are dealing with to ensure that customers are protected. Because the reality is this. You know, I live in Hamtramck and those in the surrounding area don’t have a choice on who their providers are. But quite frankly, it’s oftentimes DTE with no energy. And it’s frustrating. I’d say that’s the number one issue that we heard this summer, is the lack of reliable energy and utilities in our area.

Republicans control the state legislature. Have we seen any movement on these bills?

Well, I mean, the facts are, utilities spend a whole lot of money in lobbying. In Lansing, we have the board of water and light a public owned utility company. They have two outages as we speak right now to report its customer outages, whereas between DTE and Consumers Energy, it’s nearly over 300,000 people that have suffered from these outages. So indeed, investor-owned utility companies seem to screw up and not get their act together and ensuring reliable coverage for folks. But somehow the public owned utilities seem to always have consistent and reliable energy and utilities, because they’re using that money that they’re making from consumers and investing it back and upgrading and retrofitting the grid.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.