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The Michigan Public Service Commission's 2020 Annual Report documents an extraordinary year dominated by efforts to maintain access to safe, reliable and affordable energy and telecommunications for Michiganders whose lives were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The MPSC tackled critical issues including expanding financial help for utility customers hit hard by the pandemic and a shaken economy, and easing access to assistance programs. The agency also worked with providers to ensure vital energy and telecommunications service continued uninterrupted despite challenges to keeping front-line workers safe.
As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, MPSC Staff brought together Michigan utility companies, state agencies including the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), non-profit organizations and other stakeholders to ensure protections for vulnerable Michigan utility customers in a rapidly escalating crises. That meant streamlining energy assistance processes and developing more effective ways of reaching Michiganders to educate them on obtaining energy assistance. Utilities agreed to pause shutoffs in the early days of the pandemic, waive late fees and restore service to more than 3,500 disconnected customers.
Michigan received $162 million in federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds, and Congress appropriated an additional $35.1 million in CARES Act pandemic stimulus funds to help struggling households pay energy costs.
The MPSC and MDHHS leveraged $18 million of the CARES Act funding, in coordination with several utilities, to develop a special program called LIHEAP Energy Direct that streamlined energy assistance for nearly 41,000 low-income households behind on their utility bills. The Michigan Energy Assistance Program awarded more than $55 million in grants that provided energy assistance payments and self-sufficiency services to more than 55,600 low-income Michigan households.
The MPSC assisted more than 9,100 customers with complaints or questions about utility and telecommunications service and ensured more than 258,000 income-eligible customers received Lifeline phone and broadband discounts.
At the same time, MPSC Staff transitioned to working remotely, all the while maintaining the agency's regulatory work at the heart of its mission: completing multiple rate cases, holding more than 40 public hearings, meetings and stakeholder forums and managing more than 19,000 filings and comments submitted to the MPSC's E-Dockets system. Meetings have been held via Microsoft Teams, with public access also available by phone for Commission meetings.
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Among 2020's highlights, the MPSC:
- Handled hundreds of cases involving rate and policy determinations resulting in the Commission approving 591 orders and other actions. That included approving $570.7 million in rate increases in 2020, $542.1 million less than requested by utilities. Infrastructure investments meant to improve reliability and replace aging infrastructure were the primary drivers of the rate increases. The Commission also approved deferrals of rate increases from several utilities, offsetting the need for additional rate increases given the economic challenges the pandemic posed to Michigan customers.
- Marked the completion of the first year of MI Power Grid, the multiyear effort in partnership with Gov. Whitmer to guide the state's utility sector transition from aging central power plants to clean, distributed sources of energy including solar, storage and energy waste reduction. The goals include a modernized electric grid that improves reliability and facilitates adoption of new technologies such as microgrids, electric vehicles, and smart sensors and controls. More than 30 stakeholder sessions were held. Staff issued five reports with recommendations for Commission action, and the Commission issued 10 related orders.
- Brought a renewed focus to broadband expansion as the pandemic made clear the importance of high-speed internet access to everyday life. The MPSC worked with Connected Nation Michigan, state agencies and other stakeholders on a statewide map of free public WiFi hot spots to help those without home broadband access while the state and local governments and the private sector pursue longer-term solutions. MPSC Staff participated on a steering committee with other state agencies on Connecting Michigan Communities broadband grants involving about $30 million to expand broadband into unserved areas of Michigan. Staff also will work on required licensing with Michigan telecommunications carriers who've received awards of $363 million in Rural Digital Opportunity Funds, announced in December 2020, through the Federal Communications Commission to expand service to nearly 250,000 more unserved locations over the next 10 years.
The MPSC's annual report must be delivered to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature each year by the first Monday of March under Act 3 of 1939.
Commission members are Chair Dan Scripps, Commissioner Tremaine Phillips, and new Commissioner Katherine Peretick, appointed in 2020 by Governor Whitmer. The MPSC has a staff of about 180 full-time employees with expertise in engineering, law, accounting, finance, economics and other fields across its eight divisions: Administrative Services, Customer Assistance, Energy Operations, Energy Resources, Regulated Energy, Regulatory Affairs, Strategic Operations, and Telecommunications. There also is a staff of administrative law judges who are part of the Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules.
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In other 2020 highlights, the MPSC:
- Conducted 980 inspection person-days on new and existing natural gas pipelines, including Consumers Energy's Saginaw Trail Pipeline project that replaced 94 miles of transmission pipelines in Saginaw, Genesee, and Oakland counties; investigated 17 natural gas incidents, and authorized the replacement of 300 miles of gas distribution lines and 22,000 gas meters inside homes.
- Concluded its investigation into the January 2019 fire at the Consumers Energy compressor station in Macomb County's Ray Township that led to a statewide natural gas emergency amid a polar vortex cold snap. Staff identified a violation of federal safety standards during an emergency shut down of the station and resolved the enforcement action with Consumers agreeing to pay a $10,000 fine, the maximum amount allowed by law.
- Approved Indiana Michigan Power Co.'s "IM Plugged In" plug-in electric vehicle pilot program that will include rebates up to $2,500 for workplace, multi-unit dwelling and fleet incentives and $20,000 for interstate corridor direct current fast charging infrastructure. The Commission also reviewed projections for DTE Electric Co.'s EV programs and tariffs in 2020 and approved Consumers Energy Co.'s three-year PowerMIFleet pilot project to study the impact of increasing electrification of business vehicle fleets on the power grid.
- Updated the Technical Standards for Gas Service, which promote safe and adequate gas service to the public, provide standards for uniform and reasonable practices by utility companies, and encourage efficiency and safety. The update reflects emerging technological advances in metering, equipment inspections and tests, removes obsolete technical specifications, and implements nation-leading cybersecurity standards.
- Worked with a telecommunications provider in the aftermath of the failure of the Edenville Dam in the Midland area and a telephone outage in the Pentwater area to ensure repairs were done as quickly as possible and service was restored to customers.
- Worked on the agency's response to Governor Whitmer's MI Healthy Climate Plan, which seeks economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050, including consideration of the goals in the utility integrated resource planning process.
- Established a dedicated website, www.michigan.gov/mpscline5, to allow the public to learn about Enbridge Energy's application for siting approval for its proposal to replace the existing Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac with a new pipeline located in a tunnel beneath the lakebed. Hundreds of people have participated in the Commission's virtual public hearings in the pending case, which attracted more than 1,500 written comments by the end of 2020. A decision is expected by the end of 2021.
- Continued supporting the efforts of the Upper Peninsula Energy Task Force in its assessment of the energy needs and challenges facing the U.P.
- Launched Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts within the MPSC to focus on pressing issues of inequality and discrimination raised by Staff. The Staff-led efforts include examining the MPSC's practices and identifying opportunities to promote equity in recruiting, hiring and advancement and in the agency's regulatory strategies.
- Updated the MPSC's strategic plan to reflect the return of employees to the MPSC after the dissolution of the Michigan Agency for Energy, new leadership at the MPSC and fast-paced changes within the energy realm in Michigan while maintaining the agency's focus on ensuring safe, reliable, accessible energy and telecommunications at reasonable rates.
For information about the MPSC, visit www.Michigan.gov/MPSC, sign up for its monthly newsletter or other listservs, or follow the Commission on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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