LANSING, Mich.(Detroit Free Press) -- There's little that the Legislature can do to punish utilities for their response to December's ice storm, which left some customers without power during the Christmas holidays for up to 10 days.
But they were able to give a tongue lashing Tuesday, especially to the municipally-owned Lansing Board of Water and Light, which has come under heavy criticism for its response - more precisely it's lack of response - to the catastrophic storm that left 40% of its customers without power.
"I feel like I'm sitting at a Detroit Lions press conference trying to explain away another losing season," state Rep. Jeff Farrington, R-Utica, told George Stojic, BWL's executive director of strategic planning and development. "Why should I ever feel confident that you'll have another winning season ever."
State Rep. Henry Yanez, D-Sterling Heights, said BWL was getting beaten up pretty bad by the public and the media and compared it to the firestorm surrounding comments made by Richard Sherman, a defensive cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, who's grandiose shouts after Sunday's victory has come under intense scrutiny.
"We've already had one Richard Sherman moment this week, so I'll pass on questions," he said. "But I'm completely appalled. You failed your customers and you've got a lot of work to do."
Stojic said it was the most catastrophic storm faced by BWL.
"You have to look long and hard for a utility that has sustained that kind of damage," he said, noting other examples would be from hurricanes, tropical storms of the types of ice storms that have knocked out large portions of the northeast United States. "it's not uncommon for those types of storms to take a lot of time to restore."
What became clear at the hearing of the House Energy and Technology committee meeting Tuesday was the vast difference in response to the storm from BWL and the two largest utilities in the state Consumers Energy and DTE Energy.
Consumers' senior vice president Dan Malone said the company started planning for the storm a week before it hit. By Saturday, Dec. 21, as ice was beginning to stick to tree limbs across a wide swath of mid-Michigan, hundreds of crews from out of the state were already in Michigan getting ready to fix any damage, which ultimately affected 390,000 customers. by the end of the storm, 3,000 workers were dealing with the storm both in the field and at Consumers' offices across the state.
The company spent $48 million on fixing the damage from the storm, which will be paid for with insurance and with funds budgeted for dealing with storms. In the last five years, the utility has spent $400 million in increasing reliability of the electric grid through tree trimming and other more advanced technology and plans to spend another $500 million in the next five years.
DTE Energy started preparing for the storm on Dec. 17 and by the 19th, had asked for 350 additional crews to come into the state to help with storm response. The utility spent about $36 million over the seven days it took to restore all its customers.
Both utilities had robust communications operations, ranging from social media to multiple media briefings to more than 200,000 phone calls to individual customers to update them on when their power would be restored, said Trevor Lauer, vice president of distribution for DTE.
Stojic acknowledged that BWL's had one line crew on Saturday and called the rest of BWL's crews in Sunday after the storm was over. The first request for additional crews to come to BWL's area, which covers, Lansing, East Lansing and portions of several townships, came on Monday.
"The one issue that we did have a problem with was our communications system. We had major difficulty with that in this storm," Stojic said. "Most utilities have a software outage management system and ours failed us in this storm. We could not accurately determine all the customers who were out of service and that caused us a lot of problems."
The Michigan Public Service Commission has oversight of DTE Energy and Consumers and they're conducting their own investigation. Since BWL is a municipally-owned utility, the PSC doesn't have oversight authority over them, but Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has asked them to review BWL's response to the storm in addition to the internal investigation being undertaken by a special commission appointed by Bernero.
State Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township and chairman of the Energy committee, said that there is no immediate plan for legislation that would address the problems associated with the ice storm, but that members wanted to hear first hand from the utilities.
"I'm not willing to give anyone a grade yet, but I think it's clear that BWL failed," he said. "But I want to drill more into the matrix of reliability."