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DETROIT (Kathleen Gray, the Detroit Free Press) - Customers of DTE Energy and Consumers Energy can expect a smaller bill in coming months following a ruling Tuesday by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The PSC ordered DTE Energy and its gas subsidiary MichCon to refund $30.9 million to 2.1 million electric and 1.2 million gas customers. Consumers Energy must refund $25.4 million to its 6.8 million electric and gas customers.

The refund is for money collected from customers to support the Low Income and Energy Efficiency Fund (LIEEF), which was created in 2000 to provide assistance to low-income utility customers who are struggling to pay their bills.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled last summer that energy legislation signed in 2008 didn't include provisions for LIEEF and that the PSC shouldn't administer the program anymore.

The utilities charged customers a small amount each month to help create and sustain the funds, and the $56.3 million they were ordered to refund was the amount left in the LIEEF fund.

"We're studying the order," said Consumers Energy spokesman Dan Bishop. "But typically ... they show up as a credit on a future bill."

Len Singer, spokesman for DTE Energy, said although the specific amount hasn't been determined yet, a credit will appear on customers' bills within the next few months.

From 2000-09, LIEEF provided nearly $500 million to agencies that distributed money to low-income families to help pay heating bills and do energy-efficiency projects in their homes. Overall, 909,111 people were helped with the grants.

When the program ended, the state Legislature replaced it with the Vulnerable Household Warmth Fund, which split $58 million between the PSC and the Department of Human Services. Those programs ended when the heating season ended March 31.

Gov. Rick Snyder has included $60 million in his proposed 2013 budget for heating help, but the Legislature hasn't yet approved it.

"Our economy is still pretty tough in Michigan, and we still have a lot of customers who still struggle to pay their bills," said Singer, noting that federal heating assistance funds also have declined. "We'll continue to work in Lansing and Washington to try and identify as much funding as possible."

Contact Kathleen Gray: 313-223-4407 or kgray99@freepress.com

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