BridgeDetroit caught up with Outlier Media’s Sarah Alvarez to discuss the outlet’s deep dive with ProPublica on how Detroit’s only utility company dealt with residents struggling with energy affordability during the pandemic.
Unlike other states, Michigan lawmakers did not institute a moratorium on shutoffs when COVID forced most people to remain in their homes and instead relied on utility companies to voluntarily pause disconnections. In Detroit, DTE Energy applied a three month moratorium on service disconnections.
DTE, which has around 2 million customers, “outpaced the six other utilities (in electricity disconnections as a proportion of customers) in Michigan,” according to the report.
Prior to the pandemic, from 2013 through 2019, DTE disconnected electric accounts 1.2 million times. 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’s authors show how Detroiters, overburdened by energy costs before the pandemic, continue to struggle with affordability. In fact, according to one study, residents in the nation’s poorest big city, pay nearly 16% of their income on shutoffs and service.
DTE told Outlier and ProPublica that in most cases, customers have service restored within 48 hours. The utility stressed that it works with customers to arrange affordable payment plans or get financial assistance and contributes millions of dollars annually to a range of programs for low-income communities and customers. DTE also noted that it forgave $2.6 million in debt for struggling customers in 2020.
Here’s are some key facts from the Outlier Media and ProPublica Report:
Shutoffs: In 2021, DTE disconnected accounts 178,200 times for nonpayment, its highest annual number of service disconnections since 2016. That’s more than double the company’s 80,600 shutoffs in 2020.
Racial disparity in shutoffs and energy costs: Report findings show 43% of Black and 38% of Latino residents are overburdened by energy costs. Additionally, advocates and researchers say shutoffs have a disproportionate impact on Black residents.
The Detroit-only tax: 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.
Possible rate increase: 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 Michigan Public Service Commision (MPSC): The MPSC is the public entity that regulates Michigan utility companies. This body approves energy company rate hikes and could help provide citizens with more transparency about shut offs and other data. The body can compel energy companies to develop energy affordability plans for customers.
Get the entire report.