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DTE Energy and Consumers are getting closer scrutiny from the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The MPSC, which regulates investor-owned utilities in the state, directed its staff Wednesday to begin an independent audit of electrical distribution systems owned and operated by the two utilities.

The cost of the audits will be paid by the utilities, under state law, according to an MPSC statement.

The commission also ordered the two utilities to provide detailed reports on how they have complied with regulations and past orders concerning outages and downed power lines. The directive comes after an Aug. 29 storm that left nearly 500,000 without power across the state, some for nearly a week. One person was killed and two injured from coming into close contact with down wires after the storm.

“These actions represent a new approach to the MPSC’s work to hold the state’s two largest electric utilities to account for persistent reliability and safety challenges,” MPSC Chair Dan Scripps said in a statement. “Over the past decade, the MPSC has issued a series of directives in response to widespread outages after storms. While there are important efforts underway, the reality is that we still haven’t seen the improvements in reliability and safety that Michigan customers deserve.”

The directive follows another MPSC order last month that ordered the utilities to increase transparency around their distribution and maintenance plans.

In a statement to Planet Detroit, DTE said it shares the concern of the MPSC and looks forward to providing a full accounting of storm damage, safety precautions and recovery efforts.

“We will also detail our long-term plans to address DTE Energy’s needed infrastructure improvements to help improve reliability and reduce and prevent electric service outages in the future,” a DTE spokesperson said.

The directive requires the utilities to provide the following information by Nov. 4:

  • How downed wire response audits are performed to verify that the utilities are responding in a consistent manner that complies with regulatory requirements and company procedures.
  • How technologies are being used to improve detection of downed wires, to help the commission better understand the detection system and what improvements can be made to improve public safety.
  • How technologies used to monitor and control the power grid, including advanced distribution management systems, advanced metering and other sensors, perform during outages, and what impacts outage-related data loss from these sensors may have on restoration and storm recovery.
  • How critical facilities, ranging from hospitals to schools, are identified and prioritized for service restoration after an outage, to help the commission examine potential improvements such as installing microgrids that could provide redundancy to preserve electric service.
  • Efforts to engage in public outreach, education, and training of the public and first responders on the dangers of downed power lines, and on improvements to these efforts given the large-scale outage and downed-wire events in 2021 and 2022.

According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Michigan is among the five worst states for power outages. Last month, a policy brief produced by We The People Michigan charged that DTE has prioritized its distribution system investments in wealthy areas at the expense of neighborhoods with low-income people of color. 

In a statement to Planet Detroit, a DTE spokesperson said that the utility is developing a strategy to use electric reliability data paired with the recently developed MiEJScreen data to identify highly impacted communities and will review its planned reliability investments in those communities. DTE also said it plans to spend $653 million on hardening/upgrading older Detroit substation circuits through 2026, and expects that work will result in a 45% reliability increase and improve safety.

Consumers Energy spokesperson Brian Wheeler expressed support for the directive.

“We appreciate the MPSC’s interest in ensuring that energy providers are taking steps to protect and inform people before, during, and after severe storms, and improve electric distribution system reliability and resilience,” Wheeler said. “We look forward to working with the MPSC and focusing on the well-being of the people we serve.”

Amy Bandyk, executive director for the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, said in a statement to Planet Detroit that she welcomes the order. 

“CUB is pleased that the MPSC is taking this new approach to holding the utilities accountable for their past poor management of the distribution grid,” she said. “These engineering audits, which will be performed at the expense of the utilities rather than on ratepayers’ dime, will expose problems that have led to Michigan being one of the worst states for power outages and also point to the approaches that can make our grid stronger.” 

The order requires the utilities to report their progress against an order issued in 2018 following a May storm that left 300,000 customers without power and resulted in one death, and another issued in 2021 following a storm that left an estimated 372,000 Consumers Energy and 500,000 DTE customers without power, some for more than a week.

A third-party audit will involve hiring a consultant to evaluate electrical grid equipment and utility operations to identify ways to reduce outages and prevent contact with down wires.

While Bandyk said the audit will offer a good starting point, she believes stronger measures are needed to effect change.

“Ultimately, what will be needed are new regulations to financially penalize the utilities when they fail to perform like they should, but as we work toward those bigger reforms, CUB strongly supports actions like this order,” Bandyk said.

Questions or comments about this article? Contact us at editor@energynews.us.

Nina Ignaczak / Planet Detroit

Nina Ignaczak is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit.