One Local Resident is Pushing Back Against Power Companies’ Handling of Outages
By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter
Severe storms swept through southeast Michigan recently, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without power. While utility companies like DTE and Consumers Energy scrambled to restore power, some Michiganders were left for days without power.
Lima Township resident Susan Filipiak lost power for more than six days. In between filling her generator's gas tank, Susan made some phone calls and sent some emails questioning the power companies’ handling of the sustained power outage.
"The bottom line is, I don't feel that (DTE and Consumers) are doing their part with upgrading and maintaining the grid,” explains Susan in a phone call with the Sun Times News. “In the light of increased bad weather and high heat, they are not prepared against another severe power outage. Are they doing their part in serving us, the public, or are they just raking in the profits?"
When an outage occurs, the focus of the utilities is response and restoration. Customers are left believing the utilities are doing their best against forces of nature out of their control. But is it really out of their control? That's the question Susan wants to impress upon DTE, Consumers, and their customers. "Of course, it's an act of nature," she says. "But people should be demanding these companies do more in the way of prevention to mitigate the effects of a severe storm."
An August 17, 2021 broadcast of the NPR's Stateside confirmed Susan's suspicions. The 18-minute program examined the recent outage and stated one of the culprits was the utility's four-year backlog of tree trimming. Dan Scripps, Chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission, explained that vegetation management is often the first item trimmed from the budget because it doesn't immediately contribute to profit. However, he adds, "For the circuits they've already trimmed, we're seeing better performance: fewer outages, shorter duration on the outages."
Also on the program is Charlotte Jameson, Director of the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan. She maintains that "Utilities are incentivized to invest tons of money into capital projects: replacing poles and wires, utility generation plants, those sorts of things. They're not incentivized to really look at maintenance of the grid." Jameson would like to see that changed to a performance-based model.
An investigative November 13, 2019 article in the Detroit Metro Times that, among other disclosures, states, "A Metro Times analysis of the issues found the dangerous outages are a symptom of deeper problems at DTE and Consumers. State documents show both utility companies failed to upgrade aging infrastructure, despite collecting billions of dollars annually from Michiganders during recent decades. Now, equipment in the region's decaying grid is as many as 40 years beyond its functional life. As a result, DTE and Consumers customers spend more time in the dark than those of most utilities statewide or nationally."
The article goes on to say Michiganders pay some of the nation's highest utility rates, with more increases coming. And this was two years ago. The point of the informative article is that we, the public, should expect much better.
Susan also takes issue with DTE's reimbursement policy for lost power. "DTE said if you reached 120 hours of power outage, and that's six days, they will give you a $25 credit," she explains. "That is a little tiny Band-Aid on the hardships and costs that people have dealt with."
The amount has since been raised to $100. But Susan still sees that as problematic for people and advantageous for DTE. "You have to apply for the reimbursement," she explains. "I agree with AG Nessel, who is pushing utilities to give it automatically. How many people will actually go to the trouble of applying? It's like a rebate where a very small percentage of people actually utilize it."
Even the $100 would be stretched to cover the loss from a sustained power outage that more and more people realize could be prevented. In an email to Michigan’s Attorney General, Susan stated she spen $210 on gasoline for her generator to keep her fridge running and water working. She knows of people who relocated to a hotel because the outage made their medical equipment useless. "That really hurts when living on a tight budget," she says.
To make her voice heard, Susan began working the daunting labyrinthine multiverse of government agencies and utilities. First, she emailed Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office. A quick reply came back recommending her to register her complaint to the Michigan Public Service Commission. She did and received a response assigning her a case number. DTE then called Susan, telling her she was being given a caseworker for the complaint, and the caseworker would be in contact. Susan was never called.
However, she persevered in getting a DTE representative on the phone. "She gave me some perspective on the outage," says Susan. "This was the largest outage in company history. The second largest was in 2017, when they said they would make sure it never happened again. And, she told me this is the sixth catastrophic outage in the past eight weeks."
A catastrophic outage is when 130,000 or more households lose power. All of this was confirmed in an email to Susan. "But there was nothing in that email about what they are doing to avoid the next major power outage," says Susan. "It bothers me that DTE is ready just to let it happen again, and again, and again."
And to add insult to injury, a June 1, 2021, Detroit News article, Consumers Energy electricity rate increases 50% during peak hours, revealed pilot programs by Consumers and DTE that will raise the price of electricity during the parts of the day when we need it the most.
Susan isn’t alone in her frustration over the utility company’s lackadaisical approach to ensuring their customers have power during the worst of times. More and more people are beginning to speak up and speak out. The Detroit News reported on August 20 in an article, Cities, activists call for hearings over utilities' response to storm outages, that the Michigan League of Conservation Voters is pressing the State Legislature to conduct oversight hearings and a full investigation into why DTE and Consumers “continue to fail their customers and businesses.” The cities of Lathrup Village and Southfield have begun a MoveOn.org petition demanding DTE explain the continued lengthy outages.
People are getting restless and losing patience with the billion-dollar power companies that could be doing much more to mitigate the hardships of a lengthy outage. It brings to mind the iconic phrase shouted by anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
"Our climate is changing," says Susan. "Temperatures and the number of storms are increasing. The power companies are not doing their part in all of this, and it's only going to get worse."
Susan's objective in all this is to encourage people to get their credit and, while they're on the website, make their voices heard regarding the utility company's responsibility in preventing severe outages. And to make their voices heard wherever they can – to the utilities, Lansing Legislators, Washington Legislators, and advocacy groups.
Below are a few helpful links should another lengthy outage occur. May you never need them.
File a formal complaint with the Michigan Public Service Commission by calling 800-292-9555 or 517-284-8100 or submit a complaint electronically at https://mpsc.force.com/complaints/complaintform