DTE’s proposed rate hike draws public outcry: ‘Our lights shouldn’t be able to get cut off for $124’

DTE says the addition of $388 million — an 8.8% increase for households — to its annual revenues is needed to maintain the state’s energy grid.

FILE — Dozens gathered in an auditorium for the Michigan Public Service Commission hearing on DTE proposed rate increase.

FILE — Dozens gathered in an auditorium for the Michigan Public Service Commission hearing on DTE proposed rate increase.

DTE Energy wants to raise its rates for electricity and gas — 8.8% for homes. The Michigan Public Service Commission will decide on the price hike before Thanksgiving.

DTE says the addition of $388 million to its annual revenues is needed to maintain the state’s energy grid. But many oppose the increase.

At Monday’s Michigan Public Service Commission hearing, it was standing room only as dozens gathered to weigh in on the price hike. The meeting in Detroit lasted three hours long. Most people took turns voicing their frustrations with DTE Energy, hoping the regulators listening would vote against the utility’s request when the time comes.

Edith Lee-Payne spoke early and stuck around until the very end. She says power lines near her home were overgrown with vegetation. She told DTE and little was done. Then one day a tree fell onto the electrical wires and set her home on fire.

“They didn’t keep me safe,” Lee-Payne said of DTE. “They didn’t do the protective measures. They had a line clearance program that’s ineffective.”

Her complaint dates back to 2008.

“And I’m not giving up on this because it’s still happening.”

Lee-Payne said her concerns go beyond her property. She said people’s lives are at stake. She brought up a list on her phone and spoke of 14-year-old Malik Shelton, who died after encountering a downed power line in 2013.

“DTE knew. They knew about the line. K’Brianna Griffin, 12 years old. She was electrocuted. DTE knew and they did nothing.”

Environmental groups like Souladarity in Highland Park say DTE fails its poor, Black and Brown customers and that the rate increase will do little to improve service for them.

Carlton Clyburn, the City Council President of Highland Park, said DTE does not have a plan to upgrade the city’s power grid in the next 10 years.

“We have fires in the alley. The overgrowth. It’s just not maintained. Poles leaning, poles attached to buildings,” said Clyburn. “And when you talk about taking up the rates, what does that do to someone on fixed income?”

Dorothy White said she used to have government assistance to pay her DTE bills. But that stopped and she got a shutoff notice.

“I got a few people that’s going to help me, so it won’t get cut off … Our lights shouldn’t be able to get cut off for $124.”

It’s not just her bills. White says her mother is facing steep charges, too.

“Her light bill [is] $500 and she is by herself. And she’s bedridden.”

Advocates say it’s time for alternatives

As critics rally against the utility in-person, others are making legal arguments against DTE. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, the city of Ann Arbor, Walmart and Kroger are intervening. They say the utility is seeking “excessive” returns.

“It just doesn’t make any sense. I pay three or four hundred dollars. I’m afraid to go get an electric car right now,” said Alexander Wright, a Detroit resident. “I figure I might as well come down here at least let my voice be heard… so if I can say something to spark something, so be it.”

DTE’s proposal has upset renewable energy advocates as well. Dave Strenski founded SolarYpsi, a collective of solar roof proponents in Ypsilanti. He says net metering programs can encourage people to adopt solar by crediting them. But DTE keeps changing the terms.

“And so what they’re doing now is they want to make it even worse. They want to drop it from half to like a quarter of the cost. And then they want to put an additional fee on people who generate solar power. Which I think is just nuts.”

The Michigan Public Service Commission is made up of three members, all of whom were appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The commission approved four rate hikes since 2015.

Some argue DTE’s political influence has corrupted the process. State Representative Yousef Rabhi is the Democratic Floor Leader. He says its time to consider alternative arrangements.

“I’m a firm believer and supporter of public utilities. I’m pushing for Ann Arbor to create its own municipally owned utility. I think that’s really important.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) agrees with the public utility model. Otherwise, she says, DTE is beholden to other interests.

“It’s driven by shareholders … They don’t really care,” Tlaib says. “They’re a corporation.”

In a statement, DTE Energy expressed its support of the Michigan Public Service Commission’s process.

“We are confident that when the testimony from all parties is considered that the MPSC will make the best decision for our customers and all stakeholders. When new rates are approved by the Commission it will be nearly three years since the last base rate increase. The affordability of our service is a priority for us. Currently, DTE customers’ bills are below the national average and that remains our goal. ”

Recently, the company forecasted higher earnings for the rest of the year.

Photo Credit: Eli Newman, WDET

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  • Eli Newman
    Eli Newman is a Reporter/Producer for 101.9 WDET, covering breaking news, politics and community affairs. His favorite Motown track is “It’s The Same Old Song” by the Four Tops.