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The following commentary was written by Matt Sehrsweeney and Ember McCoy. Sehrsweeney is a master’s student in environmental policy at the University of Michigan and an organizer with the Climate Action Movement; McCoy is a Ph.D. student in environmental justice at the University of Michigan and an organizer with Ann Arbor for Public Power and the Climate Action Movement. See our commentary guidelines for more information.
The tides are shifting in Michigan. Last month, after years of intense pressure from student organizers, the University of Michigan made a seismic announcement: It is divesting its $14.2 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
U-M should be seen as a bellwether for the state, indicating that in the heart of the country, a drastic shift away from fossil fuels is not just urgently necessary, but imminent. But there’s another major barrier standing in the way of this transition: the utility that serves U-M and much of the state, DTE Energy.
While DTE postures as an important ally in a swift transition to carbon neutrality, the facts paint a starkly different picture. With 58% of its electricity generated by coal, DTE is one of the dirtiest utilities in the country. The utility throws its political weight behind legislation that consolidates its power and hinders distributed generation. And with absurd rate hikes and notoriously unreliable service, DTE undermines local resilience.
If Michigan wants anything resembling a resilient, sustainable energy future, we must seize power from monopolistic utilities and put it into the hands of Michiganders.
DTE touts its plan to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, but the credibility of this commitment collapses under the barest scrutiny. In 2019, the utility broke ground on a $1 billion natural gas plant, despite widespread opposition and concrete evidence that investing in renewables instead would save ratepayers $340 million while keeping our air and water clean.
This decision to make what seems like a major financial blunder might have something to do with the utility’s booming business in natural gas transportation infrastructure: DTE now has ownership in eight natural gas pipelines across the U.S. and Canada, which brought in $275 million for the company in 2018. Investments in the continued generation of natural gas looks a lot better when you also have a keen interest in its continued transport.
Not only is DTE deeply invested in fossil field generation; over the past few decades, it has actively undermined efforts to build energy independence through distributed energy. It buys political influence from both parties — nearly $800,000 in 2020 — and lobbies intensely against policies that could erode its power, including net metering, the expansion of microgrids, and community solar. DTE continues to falsely claim that Michiganders installing their own solar significantly raises other ratepayers’ costs, despite its own and others’ studies refuting this.
These lies and lobbying have paid off in spades: A 2008 law capped distributed energy at 1% of in-state peak load for each utility, effectively incapacitating any efforts to expand rooftop and community solar. And DTE’s tactics for manipulating local politics are even more insidious than campaign donations — applying Exxon’s playbook to a local context, DTE deliberately pollutes public discourse by criticizing its detractors and astroturfing community support.
By prioritizing profit and reliance on fossil fuels, DTE also fails spectacularly in its principal duty: providing cost-effective and reliable power. Michigan’s power restoration time after outages is the second worst in the country and DTE’s average time to restore power after a “major event” exceeds all other utilities statewide. Meanwhile, its average residential electric rate is 19% higher than the US average, and recently, its annual rate hikes — 9% from 2019 to 2020 — are among the highest in the country.
This corporate behavior also poses a grave threat to local resilience. As we observed in Texas in February, the consequences of a utility’s unpreparedness for climate-related disasters can be devastating. If DTE fails to commit robust resources to adequately maintain its infrastructure, the utility’s incompetence will likely prove deadly.
When a utility displays this degree of negligence in its obligation to provide customers with reliable and affordable service, and this degree of antagonism toward policies promoting clean energy, it makes its position very clear: It is an enemy to a resilient energy future. And such bad actors do not respond to negotiation, they respond to intense pressure.
This pressure must come from all directions. The state legislature must remove the 1% cap on distributed generation, legalize community choice aggregation, and act decisively to pass legislation supportive of energy democracy and resilience (i.e., the Energy Freedom bills). State universities need to use their leverage to demand that DTE shift quickly toward renewables, instead of inviting a representative to sit on their carbon neutrality commission, as U-M did. And cities need to demonstrate that if DTE fails to change its ways quickly, they are willing to cut ties entirely, and municipalize their energy infrastructure.
For decades, community organizers have borne the burden of this fight. Work For Me, DTE!, a joint campaign driven by the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and a coalition of Detroit-area energy justice-focused organizations, has targeted the Michigan Public Services Commission to demand that regulators crack down on DTE’s wildly inadequate service and exorbitant rates. And in Ann Arbor, the nascent Ann Arbor for Public Power campaign is pushing the city to cut ties with DTE entirely and municipalize.
Across the state, over 40 municipal energy utilities — the majority in areas more rural and red than Ann Arbor — are exercising their right to community-controlled electricity. These public power utilities are providing their residents more reliable and affordable electricity, while also giving them a direct voice in utility decisions. Chelsea Township’s municipal utility, for example, boasts utility rates that are an astounding 55% lower than DTE’s rates in neighboring Ann Arbor. Nationwide, public power utilities also cut carbon dioxide emissions 33% over 12 years, outpacing the emissions reductions seen across all electric generation in the U.S, including DTE.
Affordable, reliable, clean, and democratic energy is possible across the country and right here in Michigan — but only if the power of profit-driven, predatory utilities is challenged.
While U-M’s divestment signals an important shift in the state, the battle for clean energy must now be waged right here at home: It is time to cut through DTE’s greenwashing, and push for community-centered, locally governed energy solutions. The future of a resilient Michigan depends on it.