TV5 Investigates: Extended power outages in Mid-Michigan - WNEM TV 5

TV5 Investigates: Extended power outages in Mid-Michigan

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MID-MICHIGAN (WNEM) -

Dec. 22, 2013. Temperatures drop and an icy mix blankets the I-69 corridor. It was a painful power play for thousands of power customers. Jered Townsend from Mt. Morris spent days without electricity.

"I'm disappointed and frustrated. We were without power for 61 hours," said Townsend.

It was the second time this year Townsend's house lost power. The first time it also lasted several days. Townsend says he's turned off by the way his utility company handled these long power outages.

"I used to pay extra on my bill every month to build up a credit with them, but I'm not going to do that anymore," said Townsend.

Douglas Thomas also spent Christmas week in the dark. His Grand Blanc house lost power during the December ice storm and it didn't come back for six days.

"It's not a comfortable feeling. You can't sleep and you never know when it's going to come back on or what you should do," said Thomas.

Today Thomas is still cleaning up the mess caused by, what he believes, was an excessively long power outage. No heat, no refrigerator, no place to recharge electronic devices.

"It was 40 degrees in our house so we went to a motel. While we were at the motel we had a pipe freeze and break destroying our basement," said Thomas.

The storm also knocked out power for state senator Jim Ananich. Ananich believes the power companies need to be held accountable for their response to this storm and other prolonged outages. He backs an investigation now underway by the state regulators.

"I think we all need to evaluate how do we develop a system so people have information if this happens again, how they get the information timely and get the services they need," he said.

The Michigan Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates power companies in our state, is conducting an investigation on how Consumers Energy and DTE responded to the power outages.   

"How many line crews did they have working? How many crews did they call in from out of state? How long did restoration take? Were there any problems that hindered restoration efforts? Those types of things will be looked at very carefully," said Judy Palau, MPSC Spokesperson.

Brian Wheeler is a spokesperson for Consumers Energy. He sat down with us for the company's first in-depth interview following the storm.

"The storm was one of a kind. It caused more than 10,500 power lines to be knocked down. That's a record for consumers energy for any one storm. We had so many individual situations. We had crews literally going block by block neighborhood by neighborhood to get the power back on," said Wheeler.

Power crews not only had to work on transformers serving neighborhoods and subdivisions. They also had to fix smaller so-called feeder lines pumping power to streets and houses. 

"More often than not we would have to do very small scale repairs, we'd fix a power line, we'd get 10 or 15 homes back on then we'd go two blocks away and have to do it all over again," said Wheeler.

Jim Anderson is the Executive Director of Electric Asset Management for Consumers Energy. He says the Christmas week storm was much more than just one single battle against mother nature.

"The temperatures stayed below freezing so ice stayed on the trees, on the branches and on our conductors. We continued to see damage and until it thawed we continued to see more and more outages come from it," said Anderson.

The utility company insists it started preparing for widespread outage days once the forecast signaled an ice storm on the way.

"Recognizing the potential severity we started securing our crews getting them in an on call status we turned to our in-state contractors, and on Friday we reached out beyond the borders of Michigan," said Anderson.

During the December storm consumers engaged more than 600 line crews from 13 states and the Washington, D.C. area.

And here's how consumers broke down some of the numbers:

  • 25 percent of the crews were made up of consumers energy workers
  • 25 percent were in state contractors
  • 50 percent of the crews were mutual assistance from out of state

"We were very aggressive in getting resources in that we needed," said Anderson.

Consumers first reached out to nearby states, a group they call "The Great Lakes Alliance."  Then they called for assistance from other parts of the country.

"There were areas in the Midwest like Ohio and Indiana that were also impacted by this storm, so it required us to reach out further to the Carolinas and Georgia," said Anderson.

Anderson says these mutual assistance agreements are useful and necessary in circumstances like these.

"For an event this size to have that many resources in the state for an event like this which is rare just wouldn't be economical or prudent," said Anderson.

Consumers say there were some lessons learned from the December outages. They told us that they hope that next time they can communicate restoration times quicker and more accurately. 

"Information is just as important as restoration customers need to have information in order to plan their lives. Looking back on it we think we can do better on those estimated restoration times and tighten that up a little bit," said Anderson.

If you want to weigh in on the MPSC investigation of the December power outages there's still time.

Written and email comments may be filed with the MPSC no later than 5 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2014. Written comments should be sent to: Executive Secretary, Michigan Public Service Commission, P.O. Box 30221, Lansing, MI 48909. Comments may be emailed to: mpscedockets@michigan.gov.

You can find more information about the Michigan Public Service Commission at this link: http://www.michigan.gov/mpsc

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