LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan regulators on Wednesday ordered an investigation into lengthy power outages stemming from a pre-Christmas ice storm that knocked out service to 660,000 customers statewide, the vast majority served by large utilities Consumers Energy and DTE Energy.
Noting that utilities can recoup costs from tree trimming and other maintenance, the state Public Service Commission said it wants to know of any evidence that the two companies' failure to keep up their systems contributed to the outages.
Other questions include how the utilities deployed line crews; their preparation for the storm; if changes can be made to prevent future outages of such a magnitude; and whether accurate information was relayed to customers. Regulators also asked for more information on whether downed power lines were addressed in a timely manner.
Scores of tree branches broke and fell from the weight of ice during the storm.
Consumers had 416,000 customers and DTE 210,000 customers without electricity, some for a week or more. That's 13 percent of all power customers in Michigan.
The Lansing Board of Water & Light, a municipal utility not regulated by the PSC, had 40,000 customers without power — some for up to 10 days.
"We're doing (the probe) because of the magnitude of the number of customers that were out and for that length of time," PSC Chairman John Quackenbush told reporters after the panel voted 3-0 to investigate.
Customers without power at least five days may qualify for a $25 credit.
Quackenbush said the commission typically orders probes into outages after a major storm every four or five years.
In 2009, the panel told Consumers and DTE to make changes after residents were frustrated by long power outages caused by storms in 2008. The companies were directed to better notify customers of the $25 credit and to consult with state and local officials about addressing the problem of trees killed by the emerald ash borer falling onto power lines.
Tree trimming will be looked at this time around, too.
"That's what we want to find out: Was it a factor that contributed?" Quackenbush said.
The utilities are to file reports addressing the commission's questions no later than Feb. 7. The public can comment on the reports until Feb. 21. Commission staff will make recommendations, if needed, in March — after which the panel could order specific actions by the utilities.