Michigan monopoly: Citizen coalition takes on utility giants
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib speaks at the launch of the Taking Back Our Power coalition. | via Facebook

DEARBORN, Mich.—The air was heavy outside the Ford Rouge Complex, but not like a humid summer day. It was a February night. The air was heavy with whatever the smokestacks were belching at the plant. It was the kind of air that’s hard to breathe because of what it’s doing to all of the senses, the kind that makes you feel your lungs and taste sediment for hours.

“You’re here in the shadows of one of my most polluted neighborhoods in my district,” explained U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to the dozens of people inside the UAW hall. “Please honor the fact that you are right now among the community with a large population of children with high rates of asthma.”

Those gathered weren’t there to talk about the pollution, though, at least not directly. Last Thursday night saw the launching of the Taking Back Our Power coalition in Dearborn at UAW Local 600. The coalition’s goal is to take political power back from utility companies like DTE and Consumers Energy.

The power companies have enjoyed the benefits of a strong political lobby in Michigan for some time. However, these benefits seem limited to the companies themselves: Hearing or sharing one’s own horror story of DTE or Consumers’ incompetence, poor infrastructure, or worse is not uncommon among Michigan residents.

The Taking Back Our Power coalition consists of several organizations, including Voters Not Politicians, Detroit Action, Clean Water Action, Michigan United, and Michigan People’s Campaign, to name but a few. The launch was well attended by residents and politicians alike.

Those who spoke at the event were U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ro Khanna; Michigan State Reps. Abraham Aiyash, Dylan Wegela, and Donavan McKinney; Pastor Krafus Walker; Detroit resident Brenda Butler; and Michigan United’s Ken Whittaker, Charles Allen, and Jennifer Williams.

The speakers shared their own experiences with power outages. State Rep. McKinney shared a particularly scary story for any parent, especially a new one, to start things off. Then, one by one, people acknowledged the shared distress in the room: Residents are tired of paying increasing rates for service which seems to get worse year after year.

The night was filled with great sound bites for the residents in the audience.

“Companies like DTE and Consumers have pissed off the wrong people,” declared Tlaib.

“How long ago did these lakes show up around our state?” State Representative Aiyash rhetorically asked, responding to the common response of DTE lobbyists who often blame the weather for Michigan’s terrible record of outages. “Because I thought the lake effect was something we figured out a thousand years ago. We know when it gets cold, and we know when it gets hot. What we can’t seem to understand is why you haven’t figured it out, despite showing decade after decade of profits.”

“I don’t understand how, in this country, we allow corporations to give money to politicians,” said Khanna. “When Barack Obama ran, he had a rule: The DNC doesn’t take corporate money. Guess what? The DNC is now starting to take corporate money. How are we moving backwards in this country? We should pass in every state a clear law: No corporate money to politicians.”

While Consumers Energy is no less guilty when it comes to a poor track record of power reliability, DTE was clearly enemy number one.

Although the room’s energy remained high from the start of the event until the end, the reality of the political situation was evident. State Rep. Aiyash made it quite clear that without more “like-minded politicians” in Lansing, it will be difficult to overcome the powerful utility company lobbies.

ITC Transmission, a subsidiary of DTE Energy, basket trucks work on power lines along 8 Mile, near Wanda in Ferndale, Mich. on Feb. 25, 2023. | Daniel Mears / Detroit News via AP

However, the cynicism of today’s politics seemed to do little to the spirits of those who attended. One needed only to arrive a few minutes early to hear similar stories of sudden outages, spoiled food, electrical fires, absurdly high bills, and bad customer service. People were eager to share and hear others’ awful experiences with DTE and Consumers Energy. Beyond the schadenfreude of enjoying someone else’s misery, those who attended clearly just wanted to be heard and to know they weren’t alone.

How bad is DTE?

Stories of painfully long outages, obscured reportings, and even shorts and explosions were quite common last year. These stories often accompany heavy snow and ice storms or ever-increasing severe weather. However, to fill an entire UAW hall with residents who want to trash-talk a company on a Thursday night, there must be more wrong than just what unpredictable destruction nature can bring.

Although Michigan has had a mild winter so far, the issues with the utility companies, especially DTE, continue. In early February, some residents in Detroit’s East Village had a potentially devastating experience without any sort of bad weather to blame.

“We experienced a power outage, erratic flickering lights, and a power strip exploded and caught fire,” Detroit resident Jex Blackmore told People’s World. “Additionally, half of the light bulbs in the house blew out, several appliances stopped working, and whole circuits were not functioning.”

Without a preceding weather event on Feb. 2, the power surge and resulting events were unexpected, to say the least. However, getting a timely answer as to what caused them was another thing altogether. It took following up with DTE for nearly a week before these residents of East Village, a notably underserved area of Detroit, were able to get someone to show up.

“After five days, we finally got DTE to come and acknowledge the issue, which they said was due to the faulty work of a contractor, as if that was not still their responsibility,” Blackmore said. “They acknowledged that this was an emergency issue, but we were told by DTE that everything has to go through a process. Yet in the meantime our house could burn down? What’s the process for managing emergencies?”

The effects that Blackmore and their neighbors were experiencing was caused by a heavy fluctuation in voltages coming to the house. Most household appliances—anything from lights and fans to TVs and refrigerators—depend on single-phase voltage, which is normally 230 volts. A single-phase connection converts this to 120 volts.

In electrical transmission, a “loss of neutral,” sometimes known as an open neutral, can subject anything with a single-phase connection to well over 400 volts—a massive shot of electricity. That’s exactly what happened in the homes of East Village.

The incredibly high voltage was not only destructive to whatever was plugged in and on the circuit, it could have had deadly consequences for the residents themselves: Open neutrals are known to cause serious electrical shocks and even fires. This, of course, would not have been news to Blackmore, but DTE’s response in the matter was especially concerning.

“Initially, DTE said that contractors were rebuilding entire circuits, but they wouldn’t provide an estimate of when the work would be done,” reported Blackmore. “They recommended that we go stay with a friend or family member until the issue was fixed. We also asked them if it was safe to be at home, which they would not reply to.”

Although DTE had recommended that Blackmore stay elsewhere, they were told that the utility company would not pay for any accommodations. What’s more, DTE had reportedly not told the other affected residents what was happening. DTE did eventually fix the issue with the transformer, however, this may not be the end of the story for these residents.

“A loss of neutral can have lasting effects, though,” Blackmore explained. “It can result in burned insulation; appliances can wear out quicker; the internal wiring can be damaged. This can show up months afterwards. We still don’t know if our house is safe or not as a result of all this.

“Like many Detroit residents we lose power multiple times a year and pay an enormous amount of money for a system that not only doesn’t work reliably, but has now put us in danger,” Blackmore lamented.

Monopoly profits, monopoly problems

This story and others like it tend to share headlines with stories of DTE’s increasing stock and forecasts of a year of higher profits compared to last year. Having an enormous fourth quarter gain this past year over the year prior, the utility company had a quarterly earning of $102 million.

Such profits should be noted alongside DTE’s 8.8% rate increase on its customers in August 2022, quickly followed by another hike four months later. In February 2023, DTE asked the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), a governor-appointed body that regulates investor-owned utilities in Michigan, to increase its yearly revenues by $622 million. The MPSC approved an additional $368 million a year—which is another 6.4% increase in rates—this past December. Another hike is expected this spring.

Although DTE’s reliability is infamously bad, it is unclear how much—if any—of the extra cash that customers are being forced to hand over is being reinvested back into the aging electrical infrastructure.

“At their shareholder meeting on Feb. 23, 2023—after the ice storm that winter—DTE actually bragged to their shareholders about how they saved $100 million that year by focusing on tree trimming and planned to continue to defer maintenance and cut back on contractors in order to increase profit margins,” President and co-founder Greg Woodring of Ann Arbor for Public Power told People’s World.

Ann Arbor for Public Power, another coalition trying to find alternatives to DTE, is currently pushing for the City of Ann Arbor to municipalize the electrical infrastructure, putting it under the control of the local government.

“The primary reason for that is under-investment in our infrastructure, which has led to this dual crisis in our electrical system: We are sitting on legacy technology that has detrimental effects on the environment, and this legacy infrastructure can’t stand up to the problems that are being created by it,” Woodring explained.

The situation is clearly dire, and with an antiquated electrical infrastructure which seems volatile, an alternative solution is needed.

“It really makes me wonder how many electrical fires in the city are DTE’s fault,” Blackmore added after describing the public safety department’s inability to do anything. “It makes me wonder who is there to protect us if there’s a dangerous electrical problem. If nobody can do anything, then obviously the system is broken!”

The Taking Back Our Power coalition, like Ann Arbor for Public Power, is more proof of an indomitable political spirit which is needed now more than ever. With a worsening infrastructure and unpredictable climate, such movements are offering the potential for alternative futures.

The launching of the Taking Back Our Power coalition can be watched here.

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Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.