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DTE, Consumers Energy officials appear before House Committee

Winter Weather Michigan
Paul Sancya/AP
Ice forms on utility lines as temperatures hover around freezing in Detroit, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. Some Michigan residents faced a fourth straight day without power as crews worked to restore electricity to more than 165,000 homes and businesses in the Detroit area after last week's ice storm. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Michigan’s largest utility companies faced questioning from state lawmakers Wednesday over recent widespread blackouts.

Ice storms over the past two months have left hundreds of thousands of customers without power, often for days at a time.

House Energy, Communications, and Technology Committee chair Helena Scott (D-Detroit) said the companies need to make a change.

“It’s unconscionable that people have been going so long without power, without food, losing medicine, and I think if anything we got from this hearing it’s that change needs to come and we’re going to start doing that in this Legislature,” Scott said after the hearing.

Scott said she hopes to get a policy workgroup together soon to recommend new laws.

Performance-based rates were also floated Wednesday as an idea for holding utilities accountable.

During the hearing, representatives from Consumers Energy and DTE Electric spoke about the need for the state to invest in its power grid.

DTE Electric President and COO Trevor Lauer said badly needed upgrades could take decades to complete.

“None of these issues that are being talked about are issues we don’t know how to solve. But what it does take is investment. Detroit was one of the first electrified cities in the world. We have an older infrastructure we need to continue to invest in,” Lauer told committee members.

At times, Wednesday’s three-hour hearing got tense as lawmakers intensified their questions.

State Rep. Sharon MacDonnell accused DTE of putting people over profits.

“The executives are making millions of dollars a year, they cut jobs and services in support of higher shareholder earnings on the backs of already overcharged customers. And then the customers get an unreliable product,” MacDonnell (D-Troy) told Lauer during the hearing.

The DTE official responded by defending his organization as wanting to be successful as a publicly traded company.

“People buy shares of utility stocks. They are retirees because, next to government bonds, they are the most secure investment you can possibly get so we do not try to not exceed dividends that other utilities do, we try to run in the middle of all the packs,” Lauer said.

During the hearing, those impacted by the outages also testified about how the black outs made their lives more difficult.

Highland Park Mayor Glenda MacDonald said her city faced four blackouts within the past two months. She said that’s impacted emergency services.

“They had to lift up the doors if they had a fire. The police department technology went down. We had to go to antiquated [technology] in order to make sure that we get our calls. City hall, I had to shut down twice,” MacDonald said.

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