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This article is co-published by the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
When Michelle Jones lost electricity for three days last summer, the $200 worth of food she had just bought to feed herself, her daughter, and her granddaughter got spoiled in the fridge and then thrown into the garbage.
After she couldn’t salvage her groceries, she was denied a $25 reimbursement credit for her troubles. It was frustrating for Jones, who was on a $300 monthly payment plan for utility service.
The issue is top of mind for many Detroiters, who already pay a significant share of their income in utility bills, after severe storms last year left thousands of people across southeast Michigan without electricity for days.
Jones, an energy activist, rattled off these grievances to over a dozen bundled-up onlookers on a chilly afternoon last Wednesday at the Avalon Village community space in Highland Park. Environmental justice activist groups, including Soulardarity, We the People, Detroit Action, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and others, organized the rally.
Invoking the oratorical gifts of a pastor, Jones asked the crowd a few simple questions.
“Are you tired yet?” she asked.
They responded with a smattering of yeses.
“Are you tired of watching your energy bill go up?”
“Yes,” the crowd answered, this time louder.
“While your energy service goes down? Are you tired of power outages where you lose food?”
A third yes resounded. Jones was tired. They were all tired.
Jones was among dozens of energy activists who gathered to support a new package of bills introduced by state Reps. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, and Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, to increase financial relief for customers during power outages and force more accountability from utilities.
House Bill 6043 sets a formula for utilities to issue bill credits to residents for losses incurred during power outages that increases with the time of the outage. HB 6045 would give customers a $100 credit if they experienced four service interruptions lasting an hour or more within the previous 12 months. If the customer experiences more than four outages, they’d receive a $200 credit on their bill.
The bills come on the heels of a March order by the Michigan Public Service Commission, the state’s utility oversight body, to increase the previously required credit of $25 per day to $35 per day.
Under “catastrophic conditions” with more than 10% of customers losing power, credits would kick in after 96 hours instead of the previous 120 hours. The new order added a new “gray sky” scenario that would trigger credits after 48 hours when between 1% and 10% of customers lose power. Under normal conditions, credits kick in after 16 hours, the same as the prior rule.
The order also requires utilities to automatically issue bill credits to customers rather than requiring customers to request them. According to Amy Bandyk, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, that’s important because many Michigan utility customers don’t know they are eligible for bill credits. A CUB report showed that in 2017, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy paid a fraction of the eligible credits owed to affected customers.
“Ultimately, it was on the customer to say, ‘I had this outage, it fell within the credit guidelines, and now I’m requesting the credit.’ So people weren’t doing that,” Bandyk said. “They weren’t aware it existed, and they weren’t getting the money.”
CUB had lobbied for a $2 per hour credit that increased with the power outage duration; in its order, the Public Service Commission wrote that CUB’s proposal was “unreasonable.”
In an email statement to Planet Detroit, Commissioner Dan Scripps provided context for the decision: “In response to comments received from utility stakeholders that raised concerns about both the mechanics of allocating credits on an hourly basis and the likelihood that such an approach would lead to an increased number of complaints from customers, the Commission determined that the $35 credit for each additional day a customer remains without power was more reasonable than CUB’s initial proposal,” Scripps said.
Other bills in the package would create additional accountability measures. HB 6044 would prohibit utilities from including bill credits for outages in rate applications; HB 6047 would require the commission to conduct reviews of distribution grid plans as contested cases, allowing advocates to intervene; HB 6046 would require utilities to report the duration and frequency of outages on customers’ bills.
Aiyash said the compensation figures in HB 6043 were outlined in collaboration with community organizations.
“We sat down with those who know where the impacts are and where the pain is. And we were able to draft that legislation together. So the number came from a sound perspective,” he said.
If passed, the utility compensation measure would be the first of its kind in Michigan, Aiyash said.
Rabhi told Planet Detroit that the legislative package is designed to counter the power of electric and gas utilities in Michigan that “run Lansing unchecked,” he said, with “disastrous consequences of what happens when you leave utilities essentially unregulated.”
“There’s very little accountability when the power goes out to make sure that the utilities are fixing their grid and upgrading it and ensuring that there’s not going to be future outages like this,” he added.
The state’s energy grid is one of the least reliable in the country, with frequent and lengthy outages. And as climate change intensifies, the aging energy infrastructure is more vulnerable to the pummeling of the elements.
“We have more outages, and there’s a reason for that,” Rabhi said. “We have what I see as the worst of the worst-case scenario. We don’t have competition, on the one hand. And on the other hand, we don’t have true government regulation because the utilities have the ability to influence elections in a very serious and dramatic way.” Campaign finance records show that DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, ITC Holdings, and SEMCO gave over $50,000 to Rabhi’s utility-friendly rivals in 2018. Rabhi would like to see a ban on utilities making campaign contributions.
Despite some bipartisan co-sponsorship and support from activists, citizens, business owners, and ratepayers, Rabhi is less than optimistic that these bills will progress this year.
“Of course, the opposition from the utilities is still very strong. And I doubt, if I’m being realistic, that they will allow for this to come forward because they control the process in a real way. And so they’re going to do everything in their power to make sure that this doesn’t happen,” he said.
DTE Energy called the proposed legislation “unnecessary.”
The Public Service Commission “has already conducted a thorough review, with input from all interested parties, and issued orders last month approving new service quality and technical standards including compensation and automatic credits for customers experiencing an outage,” DTE spokesperson Jill M. Wilmot said in an email.
Wilmot added that DTE is also addressing the cause of outages by accelerating investments in grid hardening and has committed $90 million to improve tree trimming efforts without raising rates. And under a five-year plan, the company is working to make the grid more resilient against severe weather, in hopes of reducing the cost of outages to utility customers.
In January, DTE asked the commission for a rate increase to help pay for improvements to its service, infrastructure, and clean energy initiatives. If approved, a residential utility customer’s monthly bill would increase by $10.
However, Wilmot said the true financial impact of the proposed rate increase won’t be determined until the commission makes a decision later this year. Any new rate would not go into effect until this November.
“DTE’s average monthly residential electric bill is below the industry average, and the company is committed to continuing to keep bills affordable for customers,” she said.
But Aiyash called on utilities to up their game to fix the region’s electric grid.
“The idea here is we want our utility companies to hire more utility workers to fix the issues as they happen,” he told the crowd. “We want them to actually invest in retrofitting and upgrading and making sure that our grid is climate resilient, so [the utility company] can’t blame a little bit of wind and a little bit of rain, which shouldn’t be taking out people’s power in the first place.”
“I live in Detroit. I’m from the east side,” said Kamau Clark, an organizer with We the People. In the wake of last year’s outages, the organization helped people who lost power get groceries and shelter. “All my life, we had power outages; they would run up to three days, four days, five days.”
Bridget Vial, an organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, wants to see solar panels atop her neighbors’ roofs as well as schools. She hopes that no person would come home to an energy bill they can’t afford.
“Our bills go up every year, and the electric grid is crumbling,” she said. “We’ve had a chance to truly push back on this kind of corruption with people power to demand that our elected officials are putting their constituents over DTE profit.”