Detroiters pack hearing on new DTE Energy plan

Reliability, affordability top concerns

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Planet Detroit photo by Brian Allnutt

by Brian Allnutt

In his opening remarks at the June 20th public hearing for DTE Energy’s new Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Norman J. Saari–one of three appointed commissioners for the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) who will decide what happens with the plan–expressed his surprise at seeing so many people come out for what might seem like a dry and technical proceeding. According to Saari, only a dozen people had come out to a similar hearing last year for Jackson-based Consumers Energy’s IRP.

The IRP is a plan that all Michigan electric utilities must submit every five years, outlining their strategy for providing power over the next decade and a half.  

Why had so many people come out to Wayne County Community College in the rain on a Thursday afternoon to engage with this issue?

“It’s about health, it’s about affordability, it’s about jobs,” said Ariana Gonzalez, Senior Energy and Policy Analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “This plan is going to dictate whether we do better or worse in all of those categories.”

Citizens came to express concerns about high rates,  renewable energy, climate change, pollution, and the incidence of fatalities related to downed power lines in the city of Detroit. Multiple attendees wore t-shirts supporting the grassroots organization Work for Me DTE that is critical of the utility. Others were representing third-party solar providers who felt they had been slighted by the IRP and other DTE policies, especially the utility's stance on net-metering that gives solar users credit for the electricity they put back on the grid.

A number of representatives of local churches and non-profits were also on hand to support the plan, several of which appear to be receiving support from dark-money non-profits and DTE Energy itself.

Affordability and reliability were at the top of the list of concerns for both supporters of the plan as well as critics.

Detroiter Kiava Stewart spoke to the MPSC about her own struggles keeping the lights on while holding a child in her arms. She says her power was out for a total of seven days last year as a result of several separate outages. She also described difficulties signing on to programs designed to help impoverished rate-payers that include the Low Income Self Sufficiency Plan and the Shutoff Protection Plan.

Justin Schott from the Detroit non-profit EcoWorks echoed these concerns, pointing to research showing the relatively high cost of energy in Michigan, especially for DTE's residential customers. Other attendees referenced a Crain’s Detroit Business article from 2017 that said Michigan was 4th in the nation for power outages. DTE disputes these figures.

Supporters of the plan also had reliability on their minds; in their case the perceived unreliability of wind and solar power.

“The wind doesn’t blow every day and the sun doesn’t shine every day,” Pastor John Hearn from Christian Faith Ministries in Garden City said. Hearn's sentiment that renewable energy needs to be backed up by other sources was echoed by Jane Garcia from the non-profit La Sed, Reverend Dietrich Tupper from the Church of God in Christ and Reverend Horace Sheffield III from the Detroit Association of Black Organizations (DABO). La Sed, the Church of God in Christ and DABO are all listed on the “Allies” page of the Michigan Energy Promise website, a dark-money non-profit with ties to DTE Energy.  DABO and the Church of God In Christ also received money directly through DTE Energy Foundation. Concerns over the reliability of renewables  have been shown to be largely unfounded, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, especially as battery storage technology develops.

DTE Energy's IRP is looking to bring more renewable energy into the mix and improve energy efficiency. It plans to retire three coal-powered plants by 2022, invest $2 billion dollars in renewable energy by 2024 that includes 693 MW of wind energy, and reduce energy usage in its service area by 1.75% each year.

The plan shows these changes significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions, lowering them 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040 compared to the utility’s 2005 emissions, putting them roughly in line with recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which were based on goals set by the Paris Agreement.

However, critics challenge the timeline for rolling out renewable energy under the IRP and its limited adoption of solar power. They also question the utility's plan to construct a new natural-gas combined-cycle power plant in St. Clair County. Not only will this new plant add carbon to the atmosphere, some rate-payers worry that they will be forced to pay for a “stranded asset”--as one commenter put it--if environmental regulations intensify. Another concern is that the plan delays much of the development of renewables.

“They’re making these great announcements, but they’re pushing a lot of the action toward the end of that time period,” Gonzalez said. “Those of us who are really taking climate action seriously know that the work really needs to be done in the next ten years.”

This delayed action could also be a problem if previous modeling scenarios, like the ones used by the IPCC, prove to have underestimated global heating, as recent reports have suggested.

The plan includes an added 11 MW of solar power and storage in the short-term, and looks to finance additional solar through its Voluntary Green Pricing Program that requires customers to pay more to support renewable energy. In a paper distributed by at the event, Work for Me DTE claims this tactic is part of a strategy to promote “utility-owned renewable energy” and stifle third-party or community-owned solar. Several commenters expressed concern that the approach will inhibit job creation and hurt rate-payers by limiting competition.

Contrasts were also drawn with Consumers Energy’s recent IRP.

“Why isn’t DTE making the same move toward solar that Consumers is making?” Bridget Vial from Royal Oak asked. “It’s clearly viable.” Unfavorable comparisons to the Consumers' plan, which focuses more heavily on renewables development in a shorter time frame and does not propose developing new fossil-fuel assets, have been a subject of discussion among environmental advocacy groups.

These questions will ultimately be answered by the three-person panel for the MPSC who will decide if the IRP is accepted as part of a process that will take place over the next 300 days.

One point of agreement among nearly all commenters was that it was good to have the MPSC and DTE Energy in Detroit listening to citizens’ concerns.

“It’s important to have spaces like this,” Gonzalez says, “because there is not a lot of opportunity for community input.”