Reliability matters were at the top of the Michigan Public Service Commission's priority list in 2021 as severe storms knocked out power to millions of Michiganders, underscoring the need for the state's electric utilities to commit to strengthening the grid to withstand challenges brought about by climate change.
After a series of summer storms with winds topping 70 mph led to widespread outages, some lasting as long as a week, the MPSC launched an inquest into grid reliability challenges and solutions in Michigan (Case No. U-21122). The Commission directed utilities to provide critical information the agency will use in determining the steps necessary to reduce the frequency and duration of outages in Michigan. The Commission also held a two-day technical conference in October and November to gather updated data and national best practices that will help inform the MPSC's next steps.
The MPSC also held public hearings in December on several proposed changes to rules and technical standards, including raising power outage credits from US$25 to US$35 with US$2 per additional hour beyond acceptable thresholds, and making the credits automatic. The Commission in November approved DTE Electric Co.'s request to spend a one-time voluntary refund of at least US$70 million to customers in the form of additional tree trimming. Fallen trees and tree branches are the leading cause of outages in Michigan.
While reliability issues were a top priority, the Commission marked progress in other areas in 2021. Here's a compilation of some of the top issues the MPSC worked on this year:
Commissioner Katherine Peretick joins MPSC
The MPSC's newest Commissioner, Katherine Peretick, was appointed to the Commission by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Jan. 4 to fill the remainder of former Commissioner Sally Talberg's term, and reappointed by the governor on July 3, for a term that ends July 2, 2027. Commissioner Peretick's prior experience includes working in the public and private sectors with a focus on energy storage project and technology development, and she was recognized by the Energy News Network as a national leader and innovator in the energy transition on its "40 under 40" award list.
Addressing affordability and access issues
The MPSC in June launched a new public database that serves as a resource for information and data on utility customer protections in Michigan. The COVID-19 Utility Customer Data site features a database of regularly updated information on the number of regulated utility customers whose service has been shut off for nonpayment and customers who've had their service restored, as well as the number of customers enrolled in assistance plans and information on the number of customers past due on their utility bills. The database will help inform decisions about policies and where to direct resources as Michigan works to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic's financial challenges and assist customers who need energy and other forms of utility assistance.
The Commission approved a low-income pilot program for DTE Electric Co. and DTE Gas Co. in Case No. U-20929. The Commission in February also established the Energy Affordability and Accessibility Collaborative as part of its ongoing efforts to address challenges presented by the pandemic.
Progress on two major MSPC initiatives: MI Power Grid and Statewide Energy Assessment
The MPSC continued to make progress on two of its key initiatives to help lead Michigan's transition from large fossil fuel power plants to clean, reliable sources of energy.
The utility marked the second year of its MI Power Grid initiative, launched in October 2019, with 21 stakeholder meetings held by six workgroups. The Energy Programs and Technology Pilots workgroup launched the Michigan Pilot Directory to help increase transparency and information sharing regarding the results and learnings of approved utility pilot programs. A 2-year status report on MI Power Grid was issued in September. The Commission also updated its progress in its Statewide Energy Assessment 2021 Progress Report.
Enbridge Line 5 relocation siting case continues
The MPSC in April rejected arguments that the issue of whether there is a public need for the entirety of the Line 5 pipeline should be considered as the Commission weighs Enbridge Energy's application to relocate a 4-mile segment of the pipeline to a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac. But the Commission agreed with intervenors that greenhouse gas emissions impact of the pipeline relocation must be considered in the case under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act.
Better natural gas reliability for northern Lower Peninsula
In July, the MPSC approved a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a subsidiary of DTE Energy Co. to convert northern Michigan natural gas pipelines from unregulated wet gas gathering lines to regulated dry gas transmission lines that will serve as an additional supply source for areas of northern Michigan. The pipeline conversion will add a layer of resilience in the supply of natural gas for DTE Gas Co. customers in the northern Lower Peninsula.
MPSC telecommunications work focuses on broadband expansion
The Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which is expanding high speed fixed broadband service to rural homes and businesses, awarded $363 million to 13 winning bidders from Michigan to bring broadband to 250,000 locations in the state over the next decade. The MPSC approved 15 applications, required under RDOF, from bidders to be designated as Eligible Telecommunications Carriers, and granted approval for 8 of the 15 providers to obtain a telecommunications license or expand their current license to provide voice service in Michigan. In addition, the MPSC approved waivers to Code of Conduct rules for four rural electric cooperatives, providing a path for the co-ops to offer broadband service to their members. The MPSC helped spread the word about a new requirement, effective Oct. 24, 2021, for phone users to include an area code with every phone call as the FCC prepares to roll out the nationwide three-digit 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The MPSC also worked with stakeholders to ensure more income-eligible households signed up for the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which offered monthly bill discounts and $100 toward an internet-enabled device.
Sale of Upper Peninsula Power Co. approved
In May, the Commission approved the sale of Upper Peninsula Power Co. (UPPCO) to Axium Holdings LLC. Under the terms of the approved settlement agreement (Case No. U-20995), Axium agreed to maintain existing charitable contributions for 5 years, honor collective bargaining agreements and existing pay and benefits for 2 years, maintain the utility's corporate offices, propose an electric vehicle charging station pilot in UPPCO's next general rate case, and increase the discretionary cap on the company's distributed generation program from 2% to 3% of the company's average in-state peak load.
MI Propane Security Plan announced
In March, the State of Michigan announced the release of the MI Propane Security Plan, a five-step plan to ensure Michigan's propane needs are met. The Propane Security Plan was developed in collaboration with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, Department of Technology, Management and Budget and the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Commission completes one study for the Legislature, commences another
Senate Resolution 142 of 2020 asked the Commission to study rate design options for evolving technologies and identify whether, and to what extent, current distributed generation tariffs result in a "cost shift" to non-participating customers. The final report was release in November 2021.
Public Act 87 of 2021 directed the MPSC to study the potential for renewable natural gas (RNG) development in the state. The Commission in Case No. U-21170 established the Renewable Natural Gas Study workgroup, which will begin its work in January 2022 with a final report due to lawmakers by Sept. 30, 2022.