DTE, Consumers Energy promise better responses after February outages

DTE and Consumers Energy leaders were in Lansing again as they faced another round of questioning from Michigan lawmakers about their responses to the nearly 1 million people without power in the middle of a February ice storm.

The utility officials were questioned by the Energy and Environment Committee and both pledged to improve response time after last month's storm. In addition to apologizing for the delay in turning the power back on from this storm, DTE and Consumer energy officials promised they would learn from this experience and pledged to do better next time.

The chair of the state agency that regulates the utilities basically took what amounted to a 'don't blame us' stance and made it clear that the commission has limited control to address this outage duration problem.

"We set rates but not budgets. We ultimately approve what utilities can collect from their customers but there is limited ability to make management decisions about exactly where those dollars go," MPSC chair Dan Scripps said.

Scripps told the Senate committee the state will do a first-time independent audit of the state's utility system but admitted the final report with any recommendations on how to better handle future storms will be a year down the road.

Ann Arbor Senator Sue Shink brought up that DTE gave investors a 10% dividend while customers were waiting to get their power back on.

"Would you be willing to reduce that rate of return to invest more in more reliability?" she asked.

DTE president and COO Trevor Lauer did not give a direct answer while pointing out an issue with the Michigan Public Service Commission

"The rate of return is set by the PSC not by the utilities," he said. "Our dividend payout is 3.5 percent which is in the middle of all the utilities in the United States."

Both companies pledged to learn from the experience through an internal review.

"We plan to have that done by the end of the months with plans to improve as we go forward," Consumers VP of Electric Operations Chris Laird said.

Lawmakers may introduce legislation to give the state more power over utility decisions. But there's no definite timetable for that to happen.