‘Work For Me DTE’ Campaign Demands Accountability
By Michelle Martinez
DTE Energy bills arrive every month. For many Detroiters they come with a feeling of dread. Our homes are old, and inefficient. When we turn on the heat in the winter, it goes out the old single-pane windows. During a hot summer like this our homes are hot— really hot— and running window air conditioners day and night is costly. Payment assistance is inadequate to meet the need, and is not the same as creating an affordability plan. Escalating costs for electricity are not just a Detroit problem. According to Elevate Energy, an Illinois-based non-profit consulting on energy efficiency, 37% of low-income Michiganders experience an ‘energy burden’, or the financial burden assumed by households who pay over 6% of their total income on energy. Many simply cannot afford this. DTE Energy still performs over 200,000 shut-offs each year.
Adding insult to injury, Detroiters, who are disproportionately impacted by this energy cost, have little say about the way their energy is produced. The concept of energy democracy dictates that those who consume energy must be active participants in the decision-making process about how energy is produced and where it comes from. Right now, we know that, with the wealth extracted through our energy bills, production, ownership, and distribution is destroying our Earth and our communities through strip mining, fracking, pipelines, and burning of fossil fuels.
So the ‘Work for Me DTE’ campaign, led by Soulardarity and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition asks: How can Detroit be a part of the energy decision-making process? Is it even possible? Will our voices make an impact on the decision-making? These questions have led activists to raise a test case focusing on the Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, for DTE Energy. Every five years DTE Energy is mandated to submit their 15-year plan for its energy portfolio to the Michigan Public Service Commission, the state agency which regulates public utilities.
In the summer of 2018, DTE Energy hosted a series of showcases as a part of their “public outreach” for the IRP. To the everyday consumer it was a dog-and-pony show, a marketing scheme, to simply let people know that they existed. In response, the Work For Me DTE campaign demanded a public hearing in Detroit, subject to the Open Meetings Act. The hearing happened on June 20 and over 200 people came, a majority telling the MPSC to demand that DTE Energy go back to the drawing board. We worked for six months to educate ourselves, spread the word to other social justice organizers, dialogue with elders about the urgency, and mobilize youth with East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) to spread the word to community members.
Here is what we have learned in this intense period of advocating for public utility reforms— DTE is short changing Detroit. It is making more investments in the suburbs, raising rates at twice the rate of the national average, and upgrading their infrastructure regionally at the expense of Detroiters. We learned that residents are, and have been, subsidizing the industrial rate-payers for decades. We learned DTE Energy proposes to double down on fracked gas, bringing methane through pipelines through the Great Lakes region, and burning it for power. DTE Energy even proposes the continued heavy reliance on nuclear energy.
The most dangerous part of the 15-year plan is the severe limits on the development of solar energy. DTE Energy proposes about 500MW of new solar toward the electricity grid— compare that to the 5000MW proposed by Consumers Energy! The DTE Energy plan relies almost exclusively on the ‘Voluntary Green Pricing’ program: an opt-in, on-bill mark-up to choose renewable energy. Their plan includes no community ownership, and no options for energy-burdened households. In DTE Energy’s most recent rate case, they cut the credit for home-generated solar energy. That means even if you do invest in solar energy, DTE is buying it from you at much less than what they sell it for. This is an intentional move to make solar unattainable for low-income, working people. By controlling the potential for rooftop solar, DTE Energy is limiting a more accessible, sustainable, survivable future.
As climate catastrophe is raging, false solutions are being proposed all over the nation, including carbon capture and storage technology. Technocrats are proposing that creating vacuums to suck CO2 out of the air in the near distant future will be the mechanism to save us from climate change. Former DTE Energy CEO Gerry Anderson has claimed that we need these technologies to meet the United Nations’ recommendation that we achieve zero net emissions by 2050. Yet he admitted that “they don’t exist today in a way that works economically.” With renewables and efficiency measures readily available today, this kind of magical thinking is downright dangerous.
We must also understand DTE’s corrosive effects on democracy. Detroit’s Public Lighting Department, a municipal utility, was gutted under emergency management. A shell of it exists, but the infrastructure has been transferred to DTE ownership, and public governance has been replaced with the Public Lighting Authority. Investor-owned monopolies like DTE benefit from anti-democratic moves like emergency management, and are further empowered with their political spending, tactical philanthropy, and massive lobbying budgets— all underwritten with our monthly bill payments.
When it comes to energy democracy, Detroit is up against Goliath in so many ways. Democratizing energy, like the fight against Emergency Managers or corporate subsidies for downtown development, requires a long and hard-fought battle. Raising our collective voice against the MPSC about DTE is just one step down a long road. We must seek wins that reduce bills, offer money to renovate our old homes, build community-owned solar, and ultimately disinvest from extractive economies and restore our ecosystems.
DTE is very powerful, but they are also very scared. The potential of equitably-distributed solar energy threatens their business model and profitability for their investors. They are very dangerous, but they are fighting against the tide of history. Like Goliath, they are top-heavy and imbalanced. Their commitment to short term profits blinds them. We can beat them and win a future of health, affordability, and democracy in our communities. We need only throw the right stones.
For more information on ‘Work For Me DTE’ campaign and ways you can join, visit https://work4medte.good.do/IRP/ .
Michelle Martinez is a Latinx-Mestiza environmental justice activist, writer, and mother born in SW Detroit. Since 2006, she has worked in local communities of color to build power to halt climate change, and the detrimental effects of pollution in post-industrial Detroit. Working across issues of race, gender, and nationality, she has built and led coalitions using art /media, land-based programming, popular education, voter engagement, and corporate accountability tactics to shape policy solutions against environmental racism. Currently, she is the Statewide Coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.