DTE, Consumers report on shutoffs, actions to protect vulnerable customers under MPSC order

May 1, 2020 | Jena Brooker & Nina Ignaczak

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DTE and Consumers Energy filed reports this week detailing the number of households currently without service and efforts to restore them. The reports are now required biweekly through June under an order issued April 15 issued by the Michigan Public Service Commission. 

According to reports filed by DTE Energy and Consumers Energy on April 30, both utilities have outlined strategies to reconnect customers. As of April 29, Consumers reports it reconnected 214 customers and reported 938 electric customers remaining without electricity due to nonpayment in its service area. DTE reported it has reconnected 66,455 electric customers as of April 28, with 2,554 customers remaining without electricity due to nonpayment in its service area. Consumers anticipates completing reconnections by May 7 for electric-only customers and by May 22 for gas-electric customers. DTE Energy did not specify a timeframe for completing reconnections. Both utilities also filed affirmations of their actions to protect vulnerable customers per MPSC requirements. UPDATE (5/1): The Michigan Environmental Council detailed affirmed utility protections across the state on May 1.

Bridget Vial, an organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, calls the requirement that utilities will now be required to report on shut-offs and reconnection efforts in more detail with greater frequency "a huge win." 

The service restorations come at a time when 1 in 5 Detroiters expect to run out of money within 3 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study released Monday by the University of Michigan.

Charlotte Jameson, a program director with the Michigan Environmental Council, noted that the order is less than clear about who exactly qualifies as a “vulnerable household.” Comments filed on the docket by the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Utility Board of Michigan echoes that uncertainty, requesting MPSC to clarify customer eligibility.

Sally Talberg, Chairperson of the MPSC, told Planet Detroit the order isn’t looking at past income. 

“It would look at your income today," she said. "A lot of people that weren’t historically eligible, if they’re income situation has changed abruptly, it would get accounted for,” she says. 

Data provided by the Michigan Public Service Commission show shutoffs and restorations for Consumer and DTE Energy gas and electric customers in 2019.

Vulnerable households 

In addition to restoring households, the order requires that MPSC member electric and gas utilities across the state adopt minimum protections for vulnerable households through June 1st.

Up until April 15, the only communication about a moratorium on energy shutoffs had been from Edison Electric Institute, the trade association that DTE and Consumers Energy belong to along with other investor-owned utilities. EEI’s press release on March 19th stated that all of their member companies were suspending shutoffs for non-payment for all customers. 

However, Vial says local utilities did not publicize this policy to their customers. This lack of transparency and communication was a chief complaint among advocates. 

“We should not be digging through press releases and trying to separate what is advertising from what is factual information," said Vial. “We can’t get the word out to folks if we don’t even know,” she added. In response to the confusion, the Michigan Environmental Council assembled a report that laid out the “patchwork” of protections for vulnerable customers.

Jameson is concerned that the new MPSC order does not require utilities to be proactive about notifying customers about protections. She suggests that utilities should be reaching out to customers proactively after a certain number of days of non-payment. “It shouldn’t be the customer who has to try to navigate how to get assistance while also dealing with potential sickness or loss of a job,” she says. 

DTE Corporate Communications Manager Peter Ternes says that account holders at 200% or less of the federal poverty level are eligible for payment assistance programs. 

“Anyone in Michigan having trouble paying their bills should be proactive in contacting their utility," he wrote in an email. "DTE customers with a sudden loss of income or medical condition — as well as our vulnerable senior citizens — are encouraged to contact us at 1.800.477.4747 to determine eligibility for our payment assistance programs.” 

In addition to utility-run programs, Detroiters are eligible for $8 million in CARES funding administered through Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency that can help cover water and energy bills, as well as food, rent, and other assistance.

Long-term affordability 

Activists worry that once these short-term protections expire on June 1, at-risk customers will be more vulnerable than ever before as the economy struggles.

“As soon as these protections are lifted, people are going to be really vulnerable to shutoffs,” said Vial. 

In its docket filing, CUB suggested that MPSC consider debt forgiveness as part of a long-term strategy for maintaining service to vulnerable customers, noting that “existing payment plans may prove to be inadequate given that we are in the midst of or at the beginning of an economic recession likely as serious as or more serious than any contraction Michigan utility customers have ever experienced.”

Ultimately, Vial says an affordable rate structure is necessary to address the accumulation of debt that residents will likely face during the moratorium. DTE filed to increase their electric rates by 9% in 2020, and organizers are anticipating the utility may request even more of a rate hike to make up for lost income during the moratoriums. Last year, payments to DTE investors, executive salaries, and political contributions cost ratepayers an extra $650 million

Roger Colton, a principal in the firm Fisher, Sheehan & Colton, works on low-income utility issues. In his testimony for the DTE rate case, he found that before the coronavirus crisis, low-income customers were spending over 30% of their income on their DTE bill — five times the standard 6% rate that is considered affordable.  

Tony Reames, a professor at the University of Michigan and a member of the state of Michigan’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council researches issues with energy access. He says that utilities can’t stop at solving the COVID-19 related problem, but need instead to evaluate how to create long term plans “that focus on efficiency, affordability, and renewable energy.” 

Reames says he sees evidence of the COVID-19 pandemic increasing what he calls "energy democracy" — which means more public participation in utility decisions.

“Consumer boards are pushing back on utilities, trying to see how communities and utilities can work together," he says. "The voices of DTE customers and Consumers customers will be heard more loudly as a result of this pandemic, but also as a result of people thinking about the impacts of climate change, and environmental justice, energy justice, and disproportionate impact.” 

The MPSC is scheduled to decide on DTE's rate case in early May.  On whether the COVID-19 crisis will impact their decision, Talberg says, “A lot of the evidence was based before the COVID crisis occurred,” adding that the MPSC bases its decisions on the evidence presented and the law. But, she adds, “That’s not to say we’re oblivious to everything going on around us.”

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