The Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities, found the utilities’ distribution plans insufficient and ordered them to implement various actions to increase transparency around distribution and maintenance plans. (JHVEPhoto / Shutterstock.com)

A coalition opposed to rate increases proposed by DTE Energy argued Friday that Detroit’s only power utility should not be allowed to raise costs while delivering what they described as poor service to its customers. 

The Michigan Public Service Commission is considering a request from DTE, a state-regulated utility, to increase its rates and raise $388 million in revenue. DTE argues the rate hike, which would represent an 8.8% increase for residential customers, is necessary to recover a revenue shortfall and make new infrastructure investments. The typical customer’s average bill could go up by $10 per month if the request is approved, according to documents provided by DTE to the commission. 

A public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday on the Detroit campus of Wayne County Community College, 1001 W. Fort St. The hearing is an opportunity for customers to speak on the proposed rate increase and how it will affect them. Public participation is not available online. All comments at the meeting will be filed in the case docket and be a matter of public record.

DTE provides electricity and heat to 2.2 million customers in southeast Michigan, making it the state’s largest electric utility. In Detroit, it’s essentially the only option for people who want to keep the lights on. Residents can opt out of DTE service, but it’s rare. Activists as well as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and state Rep. Yousef Rahbi, D-Ann Arbor, contend that the “monopoly” has allowed DTE to ignore the causes of prolonged service outages and defer investments in the power grid. 

“What do we get for our money? Long and frequent blackouts and the worst performance record of any Michigan private utility,” Tlaib said during a Friday press conference outside DTE’s Detroit offices. “Michigan is one of the 10 worst states for power outages in the country, in large part thanks to DTE’s refusal to invest in the infrastructure, especially in our Black and brown communities.”

DTE in a Friday statement noted that it’s “building the grid of the future to support economic development and electrification.”

“We are investing more than $1 billion annually over the next five years to upgrade and modernize the electric grid to provide improved reliability and increased capacity to support our customers evolving needs,” the statement reads. “This includes upgrading substations, transformers and other equipment to increase capacity and reliably handle additional demand from customers, including the increasing shift to EVs.”

The company’s application to the MPSC includes written testimony from Adella Crozier, director of regulatory affairs at the company. Crozier said the rate hikes will help DTE implement capital investments to improve reliability and resilience of the power grid. 

This includes investments in substations, poles and wires, a multi-year tree trimming program to prevent fallen limbs from knocking down power lines and the construction of a natural gas plant, according to application documents. 

The state granted DTE rate increases in 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2015. The repeated rate hikes prompted Attorney General Dana Nessel to intervene in DTE’s next request in 2020. Nessel argued the requested 9% increase was “simply unsupportable and unreasonable on its face,” in a statement at the time.  

Crozier, when asked by the MPSC in the application to explain what steps DTE took to delay its current request, explained that it held off for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We the People Michigan released a report this week highlighting DTE’s political donations, lobbying efforts and history of power outages and service disconnections. Activists said the report makes a clear case against allowing DTE to charge more for its services. A major focus was the negative health impact of extended power outages during heatwaves, along with the financial loss of food and medication that needs to be refrigerated. 

DTE offers customers the chance to apply for a $25 credit if they face extended blackouts or repeated outages during a 12-month period. Layla Elabed, southeast lead organizer with We the People Michigan, said the credit is a paltry “slap in the face.”

“As a resident of Dearborn Heights, I have felt the impact of rampant power outages firsthand,” Elabed said. “The August 2021 outage left over a million people without power, some for up to seven days. I lost power for eight days. During those eight days, me and my family had to stay with other family members and lost hundreds of dollars in groceries.”

Rahbi co-sponsored a package of five bills that, in part, aims to require public utilities to automatically give customers a credit on their bill based on the number of hours they went without power. The credits would start at $5 an hour for the first hour and increase up to $25 an hour after 72 hours. Customers would receive a $100 credit for more than four outages in four months, $200 for more than six interruptions in six months and $300 for eight outages in a year. 

“To me, it’s also about creating an incentive system so that the utilities want to restore people’s power quicker, because they have an incentive every hour that their power is out,” Rahbi said Friday. “They’re paying more and more out of pocket so they have to get their people out there and restore power, and invest in their grid so the power outages don’t happen.”

The bills were introduced in April and referred to the House Committee on Energy. The bill package has not received a vote, and Rahbi argued lawmakers are ill advised to advance the legislation given DTE’s heavy contributions to political candidates. We the People Michigan’s report noted a Detroit News article which found 140 of 146 lawmakers received campaign contributions from DTE between 2017 and 2020.

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