Environmental Justice and Grid Equity is Necessary for Michigan’s Energy System

My neighbors across the street went to bed Wednesday night, not realizing that the ice storm would knock out their electricity within the hour. Their two brothers in the next room only realized that the power was out because their Fortnite game was cut short. The next day, all four children were told that school was closed because it, too, was out of power. 

My young neighbors are part of a larger student population that is lagging behind on their education. Students have been behind the curve since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools; mass power outages such as this one (which began in February 22) only add to this educational gap.

Of course, everyone suffers from prolonged power outages: parents will have to throw away their perishable foods from the fridge and spend extra money on groceries; homeowners will need to find ways to keep their pipes from freezing and bursting; families will need to find ways to keep themselves warm; people that need to travel for work will inevitably face fallen trees and electrical lines; individuals with life-saving medical equipment will be that much closer to being helpless.

I am fortunate enough to have a PV system and backup battery for my home. For the first couple nights, I charged my neighbors’ portable batteries and phones. My fridge ran smoothly, and my furnace still did its job in heating my home. However, others are not so lucky; I live in a neighborhood that has a median household income of $31,269, and nearly 67% of the household income is below $50,000. Too many residents cannot afford renewable energy, let alone any sort of storage.

Unfortunately, metro-Detroiters are used to DTE’s unreliable electric grid. Last August alone, I and many others lost power for four days due to a windstorm.The storm last August (and this current ice storm) also exposed DTE’s inability to give and receive information on downed power lines, restoration estimates, and potential gas leaks. 

It is understandable to feel helpless in situations like this; for too long, lifelong Detroiters feel powerless when they face a dark house with no heat because of a wind or ice storm. Equally important, they build up frustrations when they see their next DTE bill and realize that the huge amounts they pay don’t go toward making the grid more reliable. 

DTE Accountability

We are making progress. People are starting to take to the Michigan legislative and regulatory avenues and make DTE accountable. As seen in DTE’s 2022 Rate Case (U-20836), US Representative Rashida Tlaib spoke against DTE’s requested $380 million in rate increases while the city still dealt with widespread blackouts.Through the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), people participated in public hearings and submitted comments against DTE.

With more people engaging with the MPSC, now is the time to highlight recent efforts by Vote Solar and other grassroots organizations to integrate environmental justice (EJ) and grid equity to utility regulation. EJ, in terms of the electric grid, points to harmful effects caused by emissions from coal plants and the socioeconomic benefits of distributed energy resources (DERs). Grid equity is best defined by Will Kenworthy, Vote Solar’s Senior Regulatory Director for the Midwest: “Grid equity” is a subset of energy justice that is focused on ensuring that the distribution grid provides safe, reliable, and clean electric service to all customers on an equitable basis. This means that environmental justice communities not only experience comparable levels of reliability as other communities, but also that they experience the same service quality and capacity to accommodate electrification and DERs. The MPSC recently recognized how necessary it is to include EJ and grid equity to DTE’s plans for maintaining reliability.These are the two most important things that we must advocate for in order to prevent tragic power outages that Michiganders face regularly. Even Governor Gretchen Whitmer called for the MPSC to address grid reliability and affordability, back in August 2021.

Granted, DTE attempted to address grid reliability in its most recent rate case filing. In their record ask of over $619 million annual rate increases, they note grid “hardening” as a key factor in their proposal. Of course, Detroiters remember DTE’s rate case from last year (U-20836), where they asked for $380 million in rate increases. We all voiced our concerns over affordability, especially for those in disenfranchised communities; what will we Detroiters say about DTE’s most recent attempt to address reliability, while trying to maintain the highest bills in the nation?

What we must do next

Right now, we must capitalize both the legislative and regulatory processes to protect the people. The legislative majority of Michigan is in favor of expanding clean energy; comprehensive bills towards EJ and grid equity are possible and necessary to bring accountability to our utilities. From the regulatory side, even the MPSC admits that they “remain troubled over the continued reliability challenges of [DTE’s] distribution system, particularly when compared to the high cost of service”.

We cannot afford to keep people in the dark or withhold children like my neighbors from their education because a power outage could have been easily prevented. We cannot afford to have parents lose a day of work because they are living paycheck to paycheck. We simply cannot afford to risk the lives of electricity-dependent sick people and the elderly. 

If you would like to join an initiative to push for legislative action, please contact the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. If you would like to join an initiative that participates in the regulatory process, please reach out to Soulardarity. If you would like to only submit comments to the MPSC, please go to the Commission’s website and comment on DTE’s most recent rate case. 

JOIN THE MOVEMENT Sign up for updates from Vote Solar on solar progress and energy justice across the U.S.