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DTE Energy’s name is everywhere in metro Detroit, on nature areas, venues, events and, of course, utility bills. For thousands of Detroiters, DTE also signifies debt, mounting bills and losing service, with rates and shut-offs outpacing other utilities.
Last week, ProPublica and Outlier Media published an investigation that showed just how extensive DTE’s shut-offs were before and during the pandemic. The utility, which has more than 2 million customers in the state, disconnected accounts for nonpayment 80,600 times in 2020 and 178,200 times in 2021, its highest annual total since 2016.
The utility said the majority of customers usually have service restored within 48 hours, and it works to help customers access payment plans and financial assistance. DTE forgave $2.6 million in customer debt in 2020, DTE spokesman Chris Lamphear told ProPublica.
But the company still shut off accounts 1.4 million times since the state started keeping data in 2013, and prices just keep going up. Let’s break down what that means and why it matters – and you can read the full story for all the data and context.
How do DTE’s electricity shut-off rates compare to other utilities in Michigan?
During the pandemic, DTE’s rate of electricity shut-offs outpaced all six other investor-owned utilities in the state. DTE’s rate of disconnections was twice as high as the second-largest utility, Consumers Energy. Before the pandemic, there was still a large gap between the two, with DTE reporting 47% more shut-offs as Consumers from 2013 through 2019.
Part of the pandemic gap can be explained by moratorium policies – DTE halted shut-offs for nonpayment for just three months, while Consumers kept its moratorium in place for eight months for most customers, and didn’t see a big uptick in shut-offs once they resumed disconnections.
DTE and Consumers serve different parts of the state. DTE notes that half a million of its customers live in poverty, but ProPublica’s analysis found the proportion of people who live in poverty was about the same in the two service areas.
The rates that DTE charges residents, meanwhile, are higher than Consumers and 95% of electric suppliers across the country, according to Outlier and ProPublica’s analysis.
DTE’s policy allows it to begin the shut-off notification process after a customer misses a single payment and falls more than $100 behind on a bill. For Consumers, that threshold is $200.
“The average [DTE] bill is above $100, so you miss one bill – just because you didn’t pay it for whatever reason, maybe you forgot – you could be at risk of shut-off,” Outlier reporter Sarah Alvarez explained to Detour.
How do DTE’s rates affect Detroiters?
In Detroit, high prices, low incomes and issues like poorly insulated homes combine to make bills unaffordable for a large swath of residents.
“Right now I have to make a choice between paying my part of Medicare or paying for utilities,” one DTE customer in Detroit told ProPublica and Outlier. Another DTE customer said they missed their shut-off warning notice when they were sick with COVID-19 and stuck in bed. One man, who owed the utility $2,500, described the stress of trying to keep the electricity on for his kids, who need the internet for school.
DTE’s shut-offs are the highest in the state, but it’s difficult to compare it to the rest of the country. Utilities must report shut-off numbers to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), but many states don’t require shut-off reporting at all, nor do the feds. Which brings us to…
What kind of oversight do Michigan utilities receive?
The ProPublica story digs into the history of how we got “investor-owned utilities” that need government approval to set rates but lack other oversight and transparency you get with public utilities.
In the present, that’s left us with utilities that “have a public function but get corporate protection, in terms of information availability,” Alvarez said. “You can’t FOIA them, but… there needs to be some attention paid to those types of entities. The fact that we have no idea who DTE shuts off – and they absolutely know – that’s frustrating.”
While MPSC approves rate increases, the state agency doesn’t have the legal authority to consider affordability as part of its decision making. MSPC has approved six DTE rate increases since 2011 and DTE is seeking approval for another. In 2020, the company paid out nearly $540 million in dividends to investors.
What can I do if DTE disconnects my electricity?
If your electricity is disconnected, you can text “DETROIT” to 67485 anytime for info about assistance programs. This ProPublica guide goes over your rights, what you can do and where to get help.
For an extended guide to understanding your energy utility in the climate change era (including what to do in a storm outage and how to lower your bills) check out this guide from Planet Detroit.
How could we have fewer shut-offs and more affordable energy bills?
One solution proposed by consumer advocates is income-based billing, where rates are determined based on how much customers make, to reduce the energy burden for people who struggle to pay their bills. Several states including Ohio have such programs (usually called Percentage of Income Payment Plans, or PIPPs). Rhode Island lawmakers are now considering a state law to enact a PIPP program; California’s utility regulatory agency last year ordered utilities to implement PIPP pilot programs.
At MSPC’s urging, DTE started a pilot program in January that caps bills at 10% of income. It is set to last two years for up to 2,000 people.
Elsewhere, some places are moving forward with more sweeping changes that would improve affordability, sometimes as part of larger clean energy goals. Oregon recently passed a law that gives its utility commission more authority to consider energy burden and social equity factors when setting rates. Leaders in other states, like California, have proposed creating public power options. Individual communities have pursued their own alternatives – including Ann Arbor, where officials want to start a municipal, sustainable energy utility to generate renewable energy as a supplement to DTE.
In Detroit and Highland Park, the nonprofit Soulardarity is also focused on reducing DTE reliance, with a pilot program expanding access to solar power for low-income residents.
How do I find out more about state utility decisions and what DTE is up to?
Ready to keep a closer eye on DTE and decisions coming out of the MSPC? Check out their meeting calendar here, or visit the site of the state advocate for residential customers, the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan to check out details on DTE’s latest rate case.