OPINION: Why power outages are a public health problem and demand a legislative solution

The disruption and personal loss caused by the recent power outages should serve as a wake up call to the Michigan legislature.
Sleep-apnea requires use of an electrically powered CPAP machine.

As the first MI Healthy Climate Conference convened this week in Detroit, many Michiganders were reminded of the importance of affordable and dependable clean electricity to protect human health. 

In February of this year, an ice storm caused power outages that left 700,000 people in the cold and dark for days, creating financial hardships and disrupting daily life. For others, such as older adults and people living with disabilities, power outages are not simply a hardship but dangerous situations placing their health and lives at risk.

First responders and emergency health providers will tell you they brace for the surge of patients that inevitably comes when the power goes out. As one man did last Christmas Eve, it is not uncommon for oxygen-dependent patients to seek help from first responders within minutes of a power outage, experiencing devastating consequences, including death, while trying to connect to an alternate source of oxygen. 

Michigan is ranked among the worst states (46 out of 51, including the District of Columbia) in terms of overall utility performance according to the 2022 Citizens Utility Board performance report, a concerning finding considering it is also included among states in which the largest numbers of electricity-dependent individuals reside. 

Reliable electricity is essential for patients dependent on ventilators, oxygen generators, infusion pumps, dialysis machines, electric wheelchairs and more. Emergency room visits after power outages have been described as “electricity emergencies” rather than medical emergencies due to the number of people who rely on electrically powered medical devices seeking assistance.  

Power outages can affect public transportation, refrigeration, communication, elevators and garage doors, temperature regulation, and water pumping equipment. They can increase carbon monoxide poisoning (through incorrect use of generators) and contribute to falls and other injuries. Living without electricity for an extended period of time places food, pets, and life-saving medicine at risk.

At the same time, some may be forced to evacuate their homes and seek shelter elsewhere. As disruptive as those circumstances may be for able-bodied people, for those with pre-existing conditions, or for older adults who cannot withstand extreme temperatures, these conditions are certainly life-threatening.

Unfortunately, “unprecedented” recurring extreme weather events are projected to become more numerous going forward as impacts of climate change advance. As such, it is critical that the state legislature empowers the MPSC to identify ways to ensure affordable and reliable life-saving energy throughout the state.

Ideally, the MPSC would be given the statutory power to tie the utilities’ financial compensation to the reliability, affordability, equity and pollution reduction. Similarly, the MPSC should be able to create penalties if the utilities fail to meet these standards.

State legislators, in turn, should move forward with complementary bills that lift the cap on roof-top solar, support community solar, improve energy efficiency, encourage upgrading the grid, and make it easier to build out renewable energy and storage projects critical to addressing the root cause of climate disruption driving extreme weather events and subsequent power outages. 

While Senate Democrats introduced just such a Clean Energy Plan earlier this week, it is critical that the Michigan Legislature find a path forward to enduring strong bipartisan legislation that meets the moment. 

Such a legislative agenda would promote a more distributed clean energy system that would keep the lights (heat/air conditioning, etc.) on in community centers, resilience hubs, and cooling centers, which in turn, would be able to provide essential life-saving services to those disproportionately impacted by power outages during an extreme weather event.

In summary, the disruption and personal loss caused by the recent power outages should serve as a wake-up call to the state legislature. Let’s make this moment an inflection point in which our policymakers and, subsequently, the utilities embrace the rapid transition to a more reliable and affordable clean energy system that protects the health and well-being of all.


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