The Michigan Public Service Commission on Wednesday requested its staff conduct an independent audit of electrical systems owned and operated by DTE Energy Co. and Consumers Energy Co. (Shutterstock photo)

The City Council is urging DTE Energy to halt utility shutoffs for Detroiters over nonpayment for one year to provide relief to residents still facing hardships spurred by the COVID-19 crisis. 

The council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution asking the utility to restore a self-imposed moratorium that was briefly in place earlier on in the pandemic. 

The request follows a March report by Outlier and ProPublica that broke down how DTE dealt with residents struggling with energy affordability amid COVID-19. The report notes that in 2021 DTE disconnected accounts 178,000 times for nonpayment – its highest annual number of service disconnections since 2016 – and more than double the company’s 80,600 shutoffs in 2020.

Unlike some other states, Michigan lawmakers did not institute a moratorium on shutoffs when the virus forced most people to remain in their homes and instead relied on utility companies to voluntarily pause disconnections. 

In Detroit, DTE had instituted a three-month pause on service disconnections. That moratorium, the council resolution notes, was shorter than those put in place by the largest utilities in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Brynn Guster, a spokeswoman for DTE, said in an email to BridgeDetroit that the utility intends to address statements made in the council’s resolution in the coming weeks. 

Two years after the start of the global pandemic, she said, DTE customers “now have less energy bill debt, thanks to an aggressive effort to ensure customers had access to and assistance from state programs, non-profit agency partners and DTE Foundation donations to pay their bills.”

“The result: Michiganders avoided mounting energy bills that customers in other states are now experiencing as extended moratoriums on disconnects are lifted,” Guster wrote. “Moratoriums are not always in the best interest of residents because they only allow debt to grow as energy use continues.”

The Outlier and ProPublica report said DTE, which has around 2 million customers, “outpaced the six other utilities (in electricity disconnections as a proportion of customers) in Michigan.”

Prior to the pandemic, from 2013 through 2019, DTE disconnected electric accounts 1.2 million times, according to Outlier and ProPublica’s analysis. During those years, DTE’s shut off rate was 47% higher than Consumers Electric, which has a similar proportion of customers living in poverty.

The report also noted 43% of Black and 38% of Latino residents are overburdened by energy costs and advocates and researchers say shutoffs have disproportionately impacted Black residents.

DTE has told Outlier and ProPublica that in most cases, customers cut off have service restored within 48 hours. The utility said it works with customers to arrange payment plans and financial assistance and it contributes millions of dollars annually to a range of programs for low-income communities and customers. DTE also forgave $2.6 million in debt for struggling customers in 2020. 

Guster reiterated to BridgeDetroit that a range of payment and energy assistance plans are available to those who need it.

The council’s resolution notes during the pandemic, DTE discontinued a kiosk payment option at several public locations and government buildings, including the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, which “during these times of unreliable mail delivery and sketchy web connections, severely curtails the ability of many of its customers to easily pay their bills.”

Guster said DTE offers several ways for customers to pay bills, adding “our kiosks were available through the end of October 2021 as a payment option channel.”

Council members approved the resolution Tuesday without discussion. The measure was also moved out of the council’s Public Health and Safety subcommittee earlier this month without discussion and with a recommendation to approve it.

The Detroit City Clerk’s office will distribute the resolution to DTE’s Board of Directors, executive leadership as well as the Michigan Public Service Commission, the public entity that regulates the state’s utility companies, it notes.

Detroit residents began paying a monthly utility tax in the 1970s. Detroit is the only city where the state approved tax applies. In 2020, $33 million from this fund went to the Detroit police department while $12.5 million went to the Public Lighting Authority.  

DTE is currently asking for a rate increase which would be its seventh in the last decade, worth an additional $388 million in annual revenue.

The MPSC declined to comment Tuesday on the council’s resolution. But, spokesman Matt Helms stressed in an email, “The MPSC remains focused on affordability for utility customers and improving assistance programs available for low-income customers.”

That work is ongoing through our Energy Affordability and Accessibility Collaborative, he said.

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