Letter: Utility companies shouldn't decide clean energy policy

The Detroit News

In Michigan, we are picking up yet again after another storm left nearly a million without power across the state. We cannot continue the course of incremental progress. This is a lesson that we must seize the moment and sprint toward cleaner air, lower energy costs and jobs in the growing solar industry.

With huge amounts of federal funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, there has never been a better time for people to take control of their energy costs with rooftop and community-owned solar. Unfortunately, there is one thing standing in their way: DTE Energy.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits and rebates for homeowners who make energy-saving updates to their homes. Tax credits are available now for updates like new windows, doors, air conditioners, insulation and solar panels, while larger rebates for energy-saving and electrification updates are expected to become available later this year or early next year.

DTE Energy is a Fortune 500 company that has made a profit by arguably overcharging customers for decades, misleading the Michigan public and policymakers into thinking it had all the right answers on how to power our homes and businesses with public relations campaigns and donations, while allowing toxic pollution into our air.

DTE recently reported $1.1 billion in profits after reporting profits rose during the worst moments of the COVID-19  pandemic. Billions in DTE profits have benefited shareholders and CEOs while the utility has pursued tens of thousands of shutoffs on customers during the pandemic, even as it simultaneously took hundreds of millions in relief dollars from the federal government. 

Community members have exercised their agency by advocating for energy democracy, including the use of rooftop and community solar panels to power our homes and businesses. Yet the 10% rate of return the state of Michigan automatically allows DTE to seize when it builds anything that produces power is a major detriment.

The concept of a monopoly utility that continues to operate a questionably coal plant and wants to continue our fossil fuel addiction by switching to fracked gas is not who we can rely on when the power goes out.

That's why thousands of us have shown up to hearings and submitted testimony against DTE's practices — including hundreds who showed up in Detroit this summer to make their voices heard.

We applauded when we heard the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) directed DTE to include, in its future rate cases and distribution plans, overlay maps, charts, graphs and other visual and data displays to help better inform and understand the holistic impacts of infrastructure investments on customer communities, especially those who have shouldered the burden of sustained pollution for decades.

While these efforts were successful, DTE is back at it again, proposing the largest rate hike in Michigan history.

On top of the outages, we are seeing an increase in calls, Facebook posts and shutoff protection support requests as Detroit and Highland Park ratepayers opened their bills. DTE has yet to provide the customer data that advocacy organizations like Soulardarity have begged for over the years.

In response to the latest storm, DTE said it would give $35 credits to folks who were impacted. The MPSC required that in an order last year, and the Legislature is now in the position to increase and enshrine those automatic credits, further protecting consumers. The current amount now doesn’t even come close to covering the costs of lost food, medicine and other challenges when our power goes out.

We shouldn’t let DTE direct any part of our energy future. We look forward to our new Legislature holding hearings to get answers and let the voices of frustrated customers be heard for once. We look forward to hearings on community and rooftop solar solutions.

In addition to hearings, we urge the Legislature to address the needs of utility customers and respond by creating policy that will strengthen consumer protections against shutoffs, create automatic hourly compensation for people who lose power, require full financial transparency from utilities, implement a system where utilities get paid proportionally to its reliability and service, and raise the 1% cap on rooftop and community solar.

Bob Allison

deputy director, Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Rafael Mojica

program director, Soulardarity