On Monday evening, 250 community members attended a historic public hearing to make their voices heard on a utility rate case. The Defend Black Voters (DBV) coalition held a rally ahead of a Michigan Public Service Commission hearing to call on the Commission to reject DTE Energy’s request to increase rates by 9%, or a total of $388 million. Monday’s hearing was the first field hearing held on a utility rate case in the commission’s history and was scheduled after the DBV Coalition staged a direct action to pressure the Commissioners to give Detroit residents a chance to voice their concerns.
“I’ve lived most of my life in Detroit, and my bills have been sky high,” said Qiana Davis, a DTE Energy ratepayer. “Even with the so-called ‘assistance programs,’ I’ve still found myself trapped in a cycle of debt I can’t escape. The solutions they offer are not effective, but I can guarantee you that raising my rates again is only going to make it worse.”
Over the past five years, DTE Energy has raised rates four times totaling $775 million. Despite continuous rate increases, Michigan continues to be one of the worst states in the country and the worst among comparable states in the Midwest when it comes to the number of power outages. According to federal energy data compiled by the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, Michiganders suffer both the highest electricity rates in the Midwest and the worst power outages. Nationally, Michigan utilities have the third-worst restoration time per outage and the fourth-highest minutes out of power per year in the country. The most recent rate hike also follows windfall profits that the utilities have enjoyed during the pandemic.
“The people of Michigan pay the highest rates for electricity in the Midwest yet have the worst service when it comes to power outages,'' said Rev. Randolph Berry of the Church of the Messiah in Detroit. “In spite of this poor service, DTE wants to raise rates again, this time by 9%. With the high cost of gas, food, and rent, this is not the time for the MPSC to grant a rate increase for substandard service.”
“Last year, hundreds of my constituents reached out because they lost power for days at a time not just due to massive storms, but on perfectly clear days,” said Michigan State Representative Laurie Pohutsky (D-19, Livonia). “This isn’t just an inconvenience; this can be life-threatening for medically fragile people or those on oxygen. Under no circumstances should people be required to pay more for a service they already can’t consistently rely on.”
Rally-goers also raised concerns about DTE Energy’s political giving, especially to extremist lawmakers in the state legislature backing a thinly-veiled effort to restrict voting rights for Black and working-class people. They connected the massive political spending by the utility companies and the fact that regulators and lawmakers have left ratepayers with the most expensive and unreliable service in the Midwest. According to a 2021 Detroit News article, over the past five years, DTE and Consumers Energy engaged in political and civic spending to the tune of $55 million. Those same lawmakers receiving large contributions from big utility companies are responsible for passing legislation to regulate them and hold them accountable.
“You would think that after all the destruction we’ve seen caused by ‘the Big Lie,’ politicians would stop pushing it, but they’re not,” said Ken Whittaker from the Defend Black Voters steering committee. “Instead, these Republican extremists are using it as an excuse to come up with new laws to make it harder for Black folks to vote. What’s worse, DTE is funding these extremists, and now they want to use our money to do it. We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Recently, the Wayne County Commission passed a resolution calling on companies that do business with the County to exercise responsible corporate citizenship by supporting free and fair access to the democratic process for its citizens.
“When we spoke through our resolution, the commission said very clearly that being a part of this community requires respect for your neighbors. That goes for businesses just as it does for the million plus residents of Wayne County,” said Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch, author of the resolution. “DTE is no different, especially since they practically function as a monopoly. The Michigan Public Service Commission has a responsibility to protect consumers from corporations that would abuse this power.”
People packed the hearing room during the public comment period sharing personal stories about the impacts power outages have on them and their families. As climate change continues to cause more heat waves and extreme weather events, power outages can have significant impacts to public health. The current structure for compensating customers for power outages is inadequate and broken with no guaranteed amount of credit on bills for costs incurred from power outages, such as spoiled food and lost productivity.
“We need to ensure reliable and affordable energy,” said Detroit City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero (District 6). “Energy prices have risen while we see little improvements to services. DTE must find a way to keep prices affordable and ensure that their energy service works for everyone.”
Buried in DTE's rate case is a damning provision against rooftop solar. If enacted, this would make rooftop solar unaffordable for the vast majority of Michiganders and block more customers from taking control of their energy costs and producing their own clean energy.
“As DTE Energy continues to raise our rates, they have fought against affordable rooftop solar at every turn, blocking common-sense bills in the Legislature, and now proposing huge fees that would make it entirely unaffordable,” said Nick Dodge, communications director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “Enough is enough. People are fed up with poor service and high energy bills. It’s on the Michigan Public Service Commission to stand with ratepayers and reject DTE’s rate hike.”
U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib, in an emphatic address to the three commissioners, said, “You serve us, the public. Just remember that because the corporations will serve their shareholders first. You are our buffer to that. And it is too hard for our residents right now.”