‘Absolutely unacceptable’: Washtenaw County leaders blast DTE Energy, Consumers after ice storm


WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI - Some Washtenaw County leaders are outraged residents have gone days without power, scrambling to afford hotel stays and left without heat and in the dark a week after an ice storm wreaked havoc on the electrical grid.

The state’s largest power companies — DTE Energy and Consumers Energy — bore the brunt of their ire during the county board meeting on Wednesday, March 1.

“What happened is absolutely unacceptable. It is unacceptable for a corporation that has a monopoly that we are forced to pay fees to to conduct itself in a way that DTE and Consumers have conducted themselves during this power outage,” Ann Arbor Commissioner Yousef Rabhi said.

In a resolution the all-Democrat board unanimously passed Wednesday, and in impassioned public comments, Rabhi and other county leaders blasted the utilities for raking in hundreds of millions in profits while failing to harden the grid to prepare for the weather events like the Feb. 22 ice storm.

Ann Arbor Commissioner Katie Scott, an ICU nurse, also pointed to residents’ struggles to refrigerate critical medications like insulin without power.

“These aren’t issues of people being cold in their house, or uncomfortable, these are life and death issues that are coming to the forefront,” she said.

Read more: DTE customers still in the dark say $35 utility credit is ‘insulting’

Others, like Commissioner Caroline Sanders, representing a district centered on Pittsfield Township, spoke to the difficulty of finding hotel space, especially for those without resources like a credit card.

“If DTE can walk away with a billion dollars in profit — a billion dollars in profit — they ought to be able to underwrite the cost of hotel stays when the electricity is out,” she said.

In statements, representatives for both DTE and Consumers said they understood these frustrations and that both are committing to continued work to strengthen the grid.

“The storm lasted for more than 12 hours, bringing nearly three-quarters of an inch of ice, followed by high winds, causing trees and lines to break across Southeast Michigan. And while this storm may have been historic – we also know that severe weather is increasing,” DTE spokesperson Pete Ternes said. “So, we will absolutely continue to work with state and local leaders on our shared focus of continuing to strengthen our grid and deliver cleaner energy, while maintaining affordability.”

“Though our crews worked on restoration around the clock, the volume of debris, the number of downed wires, and the complexity of many jobs resulted not only in unusual delays, but additional hardship for many residents,” Consumers spokesperson Tracy Wimmer said.

“We take our responsibility to get power safely and reliably to our customers very seriously, and are committed to working with local and state officials, alongside our internal efforts to continue investing in and strengthening the grid, to ensure we continue to improve,” she continued, adding the utility has spent $3.26 billion on electric relatability in the past five years.

Washtenaw County leaders call for accountability, exploring county public power utility

What are county leaders going to do in response to the widespread outages and delayed power restoration?

They want the county administration to come back with a range of options, from directing county lobbyists to push accountability legislation for utilities in Lansing to moving away from DTE and Consumers entirely.

Rabhi, formerly Democratic floor leader in the State House and the driving force behind the resolution, outlined a slew of measures he wanted to explore.

Under the state constitution, the county board can intervene in rate cases before state regulators, he said, and Washtenaw County should do so in the case of a 14% residential rate hike proposed by DTE.

Officials should also initiate their own case to seek compensation and damages for residents affected by outages, he said. That should come in tandem with lobbying for accountability legislation requiring an a mandatory utility credit for each hour of an outage, taken out of utilities’ profits, Rabhi said.

The resolution also requests the county investigate alternative electricity providers, with Rabhi saying he supports a countywide municipal power entity.

Ann Arbor leaders are in the midst of studying the possibility of creating a city-owned power utility to replace DTE, with advocates for the plan also addressing the county board on Tuesday, seizing on the outages as evidence of DTE’s unreliability.

Read more: Is it time for public power in Ann Arbor? Group makes case after latest outages

The county resolution also requests that Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit look into complaints of area hotels overbooking and price-gouging residents in the aftermath of the storm, using a new economic crimes unit that’s just over a year old.

In the meantime, county officials need to ensure short-term plans are in place for supporting residents with shelter, food and transportation — like warming centers set up last week — in the future, said county Commissioner Andy LaBarre, representing Ann Arbor.

County officials took an “all hands on deck” approach during the storm and are committed to serving as a safety net in future weather events, county Administrator Gregory Dill said on Wednesday.

It’s impossible for residents living paycheck to paycheck to navigate extended outages, said Ypsilanti Commissioner Annie Somerville.

“There will be a next time,” she said.

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