Power to the People: How Advocates Work to Hold Utilities Accountable to the Community

by Sarah Hughes, Ecology Center Communications Fellow

We’re finally leaving behind another long Michigan winter.  You might have been one of the half a million plus households who lost power during February’s ice storm, some for nearly a week. Just as the power came back on, a few hundred thousand lost power again, once more due to storms. The weather is growing more intense and unpredictable each year. And unreliable power can disrupt and sometimes even endanger our lives.  Access to affordable, reliable power remains essential for all Michiganders. 

For those who rely on medical equipment powered by electricity to stay alive, consistent and affordable power is not only a matter of comfort but one of life and death. Unfortunately, energy costs aren’t coming down anytime soon, as DTE is currently seeking approval for rate hikes to increase already-soaring electric bills. 

Many Michiganders are therefore faced with an impossible choice: to heat or eat.

Or, more precisely, to spend their income on excessively high energy bills or on groceries, medical bills, or transportation. They are cornered into making hard choices about what critical life expenses they’ll pay for each month. And people with the lowest incomes carry the highest energy burden, spending the highest percentage of their income on energy, and are most likely to have homes that are not energy efficient. Their homes are wasting energy, leaving them shivering and uncomfortable, even unsafe, while they’re still left paying a fortune. Yet utility companies are asking to raise prices even more.

Michigan customers already pay some of the highest rates for electricity, yet have the worst reliability in the Midwest. Independent consumer reports have clearly shown this time and again. Not being able to afford your electricity costs can be overwhelming, and changing the system might feel like an impossible task. But we absolutely do have the power to change this inequitable arrangement, to insist on affordable, reliable energy access for all. 

Advocacy works. It did in the last DTE Rate Case

In January 2022, DTE applied for a $388 million rate increase. But the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) only approved about 7% of that – about $30.5 million – ensuring that a typical residential customer using 500 kilowatt hours of electricity per month would only see an increase of 71 cents, or 0.78%, on their monthly bill. Based on the evidence and arguments made by those who officially intervened in the case (including the Ecology Center), as well members of the public who testified at public hearings, the Michigan Public Service Commission found that DTE’s proposed expenditures were not justified.  

In fact, we’ve seen the impact of advocacy time and again.

In addition to fighting harmful proposals like DTE’s, the Ecology Center has fought for energy equity through efforts like promoting renewables and energy efficiency as well as transportation electrification programs. Our efforts worked: we held off DTE's efforts to lower the amount homeowners and businesses receive for electricity generated by solar panels.

But now we are back at it again.

DTE has come back to the MPSC with the largest proposed rate hike for residential customers in the state’s history: $622 million. That would result in a whopping 19% increase for residential customers on top of the rate hike implemented in January. We had a lot of success with the last rate case, since DTE only received about 7% of what they proposed. But less than two months later, they’ve already re-applied with an even bigger request. 

Ecology Center Legislative and Policy Director Alexis Blizman explains, “DTE is continually filing cases asking for rate increases. These rate increase inquiry cases include as much as 5,000 pages of testimony that are virtually impossible for any one group to completely review. That's one reason why nonprofits like the Ecology Center join with other nonprofits, like the ELPC, Vote Solar and Union of Concerned Scientists–to share the load. But to avoid this unending cycle of utility companies applying for rate hikes and nonprofits and citizens resisting them, state intervention is essential: we need pervasive, deep-rooted change in order to protect energy equity and affordability for all.”

To accomplish these goals, we’re going to need your help--so keep an eye on this space.

There will be plenty of engagement opportunities: to submit public comments, and to put pressure on the legislature to encourage the MPSC to better protect energy equity and affordability for everyone. Since utilities companies have huge teams of lobbyists and resources, and give millions of dollars to politicians--on both sides of the aisle--it’s going to take real grassroots efforts to create change. We had a lot of success with the last rate case–let’s keep that momentum going and make sure access to a heated home isn’t a privilege but a right.