OPINION: In the wake of outages, Michigan’s legislature must act for utility accountability

It’s time for our legislators to listen to our communities and act to hold investor-owned utilities like DTE accountable.

The lights go out. Immediately, the thought strikes: “Oh no – not again.” 

Feelings of frustration and helplessness wash over. 

“How long will it last this time? What about the food I just bought? Will I have to throw it out? Dad relies on an airway machine to sleep, and I need internet access to work. Perhaps a hotel is the best option – but how will I afford it?”

This was the reality that hundreds of thousands of Michiganders faced in late February and early March as ice storms swept the region, causing widespread power outages. Many lost power for several days, with some going more than two weeks without electricity. And, like we see so often, Black, brown, and working-class communities bore the brunt of the impact, suffering more outages of greater duration.

The costs were outrageous — hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost food, lost wages and price-gouged hotel bills — and the hardest-hit communities were those least able to afford them. 

As the Executive Director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and a lifelong Detroiter, I’ve seen these impacts firsthand.

We’ve been here before. In the summer of 2021, DTE left thousands without power during a heat wave, putting lives and livelihoods at risk. Worse, power failures to pumping stations caused massive flooding in Detroit, devastating whole neighborhoods. The climate crisis is making these weather events more intense and frequent. 

Investor-owned utilities like DTE provide some of the least reliable service in the nation while charging some of the highest rates. DTE acts helpless in public hearings, blaming severe weather and overgrown trees for outages. But in private calls to investors, DTE executives bragged about “strong financial results” while cutting its operation budget. The company’s refusal to invest in infrastructure upgrades and renewable energy has left communities perpetually on edge, wondering when the power will go out next.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Across Michigan, community members have stood up at town hall meetings and demanded accountability. They shared stories of hope and resilience as neighbors helped one another. But they also shared their anger and frustration at a monopoly utility that has failed them time and again, making them go weeks at a time without power and offering a mere $35 in compensation.

Now, it’s time for our legislators to listen to our communities and act to hold investor-owned utilities like DTE accountable. At minimum, to do right by our communities, legislators must enact bills that address the following:

Automatic outage credits – A one-time $35 payment is a pittance compared with the costs these outages impose on communities. Utilities should have to pay an escalating rate for each hour a customer goes without power.

Rate reclamation: Utilities must not be allowed to reclaim money paid to customers via outage credits in the form of higher rates or hidden fees.

Outage disclosure: Utilities must disclose the exact number of customers affected by outages and the outage duration along with providing detailed data to the Michigan Public Service Commission after each outage.

Grid upgrades: Utilities must place their distribution infrastructure underground starting with those communities that have been most severely impacted by pollution, climate disasters, and disinvestment. 

The status quo when it comes to power in Michigan is untenable, and Michigan residents have lived with the consequences of irresponsible, profit-driven utilities for far too long. 

It’s time for the Michigan Legislature to take action and hold investor-owned utilities like DTE accountable. A healthy climate is only possible by upholding Environmental Justice for all Michiganders, regardless of race or zip code.


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