Michigan’s largest utility provider, DTE Energy, is facing backlash for its latest round of massive power outages, which critics say the company is under-reporting. But even when the lights do come back on, those outages continue to cause lasting inequity across Southeastern Michigan, burdening all citizens regardless of background or socioeconomic status.
That impact is not always equal, either. Citizens Utility Board of Michigan Executive Director Amy Bandyk notes that vulnerable populations like minority and lower-income families tend to pay a much higher percentage of their household income on energy than wealthier communities do.
“They also have less of an ability to easily cope with power outages,” said Bandyk. “Backup generators are cost-prohibitive or not available at all to people who rent for example.” She added that replacing a refrigerator full of spoiled groceries “is much more difficult for households in lower-income communities.”
The Michigan Public Services Commission (MPSC) - which regulates utilities - endorsed a $35 outage credit for customers who experience power outages during “catastrophic grid conditions.” Bandyk and the accountability organization she represents think it’s not enough.
“Only customers who lose power for at least 96 hours (about four days) would qualify,” she said. “That is an insult to all the tens of thousands of Michiganders who lost power for hours or days and lost what amounts to hundreds of dollars through spoiled groceries and other costs.”
The latest winter storm that swept the nation plunged about 220,000 DTE customers into darkness for days. As of Wednesday, around 3,700 customers remain without power, according to PowerOutage.us, a website tracking power outages across the U.S.
Twitter users took to the platform to share how fed up they are with DTE’s unreliability.
MPSC spokesman Matt Helms acknowledges that Michigan’s grid reliability is not at a level utility customers expect and deserve. “We are taking a broad approach with significant actions to better understand the challenges to Michigan’s aging power grid and how best to update it to withstand more severe weather as the state’s climate changes,” said Helms.
The MPSC has taken several steps to address these challenges that include launching full-scale audits of the electric distribution systems of DTE Electric and Consumers Energy, Michigan’s two largest utilities. Although a formal timeline is not established yet, the MPSC hopes to have preliminary findings by the end of 2023.
Additionally, the MPSC is kicking off an ongoing review of reliability issues and is updating service quality rules and technical standards that will increase the one-time $25 power outage credits for customers who endure long outages to $35 automatically. “Customers will not have to request them from their utility as they do now,” said Helms. These changes were approved by MPSC in 2022 and are awaiting final approval through the state’s administrative review process.
Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition’s (MEJC) Energy Democracy Organizer, Bridget Vial, thinks the outages are part of a bigger crisis around reliability, affordability and democracy. “We are in this position because DTE has been allowing the grid to deteriorate for decades,” said Vial. “This is not a new problem in Michigan.”
Michigan has one of the country’s least reliable electric grids, consistently ranking in the bottom quarter for the frequency and length of outages, reports Energy News Network. But utility rates continue to rise, with DTE proposing a nearly 14% residential rate increase.
“We’re in this position because it’s more cost-effective for DTE and Consumer’s Energy to insulate themselves from accountability by interfering with politics than it is for them to actually upgrade the grid,” explained Vial.
In a report MEJC published with the nonprofit We The People MI and the Public Accountability Initiative “Little Sis,” DTE was found to have spent millions of dollars contributing to electoral campaigns and much more behind the scenes through “dark money” groups. This political spending allows the company to influence legislation that may impact political oversight and accountability of DTE.
“They also spend tons of money on lobbying,” said Vial. “Democracy has not been working to ensure that everyone in Michigan can access the basic human right of being able to have electricity. That has not been working.”
Vial suggests that elected officials address power outage compensation as an immediate action item. “When your power is out for a week in the freezing cold, you should get automatic compensation credited to your bill that reflects the true cost of power outages,” said Vial, citing costs like hotel rooms, generators and fuel, replenishing spoiled groceries and lost wages from missing work. “We need elected officials to ensure that there’s power outage compensation that reflects the true cost of outages.”
Michigan’s Attorney General, Dana Nessel, agrees. “To call this an inconvenience to people is really the understatement of the century, right?” Nessel said on Monday in an interview with CBS Detroit. “When you don’t have power, you can’t go about your daily life in any way, shape or form.”
Her office pushed back on a rate increase proposed by DTE and thinks “$35 is simply not going to cut it” for customer outage credits.
In an interview with WDIV, the company’s CEO, Jerry Norcia, agreed that $35 wouldn’t cover the type of expenses an extended outage would cause. “When we work with our regulator, we’re trying to find a balance for how much do we reimburse for an outage versus how much do we reinvest into making the future better and making the grid better,” said Norcia.