Jump the line to get power back? Some utility customers demanded favoritism, report finds

In emergencies, Americans get in line and wait their turn.

At least most of us do. Views of flood-ravaged Texas have shown people selflessly helping total strangers, again and again. The idea that one person or group can muscle to the front of an aid line seems foreign to our national character.

Yet, some Michiganders apparently weren’t afraid to try to get their electricity restored first after the March windstorm that knocked out power to more than a million customers across the state. According to a recently released state report, the record-breaking power outage that darkened much of central and southeast Michigan for as many as eight days led some storm victims to demand their power back immediately.

State regulators, along with electric-utility managers who determine the industry's best practices, have long agreed that the top priorities for rapid repairs during power outages should be schools, hospitals, police and fire departments, nursing homes and water pumping stations.

According to the state’s report, however, some Michiganders — including some apparently prominent individuals — demanded to be put at the top of the utilities’ mountains of repair requests.

Inside a little noticed report released last month by the Michigan Agency for Energy in Lansing, which reviewed how the state’s two largest electric utilities responded to the March outages, a short section says: "It was brought to the attention of staff that outside parties, sometimes those of influence, were making restoration requests outside of State priorities, impeding the efforts of utility companies to assure the fastest overall restoration in line with those priorities."

The statement went on to say: "These requests should be discouraged and minimized so they do not impact overall system restoration."

On the following page, the report cites the agency's advice for dealing with such improper demands, called escalations. The report states that although such demands are nothing new in the history of outages, this year's big storm points to a need to head off such demands and to avoid caving in to them — although the report’s wording is couched in the polite euphemisms of bland regulators’ lingo.

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“Utilities often receive escalation requests from entities that may not align with conventional restoration priorities or procedures,” the report states. The regulators go on to suggest that Michigan's two big utilities "develop (a) procedure to evaluate these requests to ensure they do not slow down overall system restoration.”

For the most part, in widespread power outages the decisions about whom to repair first are made by the utilities’ own emergency coordinators, based on long-standing industry practices, according to utility officials and state energy officials. A top DTE Energy official last week, who gave numerous media interviews this year about the company’s storm response, said she was unfamiliar with the report’s statements that charge that some utility customers, including "those of influence," demanded special attention after the storm.

“I honestly don’t know who they’re referring to,” said Heather Rivard, DTE Energy’s senior vice president of distribution operations.

“There are of course lots of people who try to their power restored ahead of others. Lots of people try to escalate things, but we have to say no,” Rivard said.

She said it's normal for countless utility customers to notify the utility about outages and ask for immediate repairs. That's not the same as having people "of influence" try to get special priority ahead of industry practices, she said.

Not even the company’s executives get special priority when repairs are backlogged, they insist. At Rivard's home in  Royal Oak, she said, she went without power for several days after the storm.

“I myself don’t have a generator because it would mean I don’t have faith in my own ability to keep the lights on,” Rivard said.

Rivard’s boss — Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer of DTE Electric – also does not have a generator, and he also lost power during the storm at his home in Bloomfield Hills, she said.

The spokesman for the state agency that issued the report said the regulatory group could not specify what people or organizations requested repair hook-ups ahead of the storm’s usual ranking of priorities.

“Do we have a specific name of an institution or specific person? No, we do not,” said Nick Assendelft, spokesman for the Michigan Agency for Energy.

“This problem was just brought to our attention, essentially. My understanding was, it was anecdotal. You had people who said, ‘I want my power back right away,’ and we just heard about it,” Assendelft said.

The agency’s concern is that such requests, even if the utilities’ rebuff them, can snarl overloaded e-mail and phone systems, and they can distract utility supervisors from their vital duties during emergency 12-hour shifts, he said.

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Overall, the state's utility overseers and energy analysts stated in various reports that the Michigan's two largest utilities — DTE Energy and Consumers Energy — did an admirable job of responding to the March windstorm and restoring power.

The storm cut power to about 800,000 customers of DTE Energy, causing the largest outage in more than a century of record keeping at the company and its predecessor, Detroit Edison, according to company officials. For Consumers  Energy, the storm left about 360,000 customers without electricity, putting the event among the company's top 15 worst outages in its history.

DTE Energy provides electricity to southeast Michigan and Michigan's Thumb area.  Consumers Energy provides it to most of Michigan’s remaining Lower Peninsula, from the Mackinac Bridge south to the Ohio state line, excluding extreme southwest Michigan.

Like their counterparts at DTE Energy, Consumers Energy officials denied hearing about improper demands for power hook-ups.

“I worked nonstop for six or seven days (after the storm) and I was not aware of this” nor were any of the higher-ups in the utility’s executive chain who were queried last week after the Free Press inquired, said Roger Morgenstern, senior public information director at Consumers Energy.

Morgenstern helped to draft the utility’s report about its storm response that was submitted in May to Michigan's utility regulators in Lansing — the Michigan Public Service Commission. A Free Press review of the company's 54-page report and its extensive appendix found no references to out-of-priority demands for repairs.

"At Consumers Energy, we take storm restoration (of electric power) very seriously. We coordinate with local and state emergency management organizations to help us ensure that we set the proper priorities," Morgenstern said.

Among the priorities are news media outlets, "so that they can provide public safety messages" such as warnings about not going near downed power lines, he said.

Although utility customers increasingly ignore their telephones and use social media to submit reports of lost power and sightings of downed wires to their electricity suppliers, the vast majority of customers — although they may express frustration during a power outage — do not expect special treatment or favoritism, Morgenstern said.

"Here in Michigan, people take their turn," he said, adding: "And in Houston, as horrible as it is, it seems like they’re taking their turns, too."

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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