By Zackariah Farah, Member of Ann Arbor for Public Power
In the summer of 2021, Southeastern Michigan was slammed with two major rainstorms that upturned the lives of countless residents. Apocalyptic images circulated of cars stranded on I-94 and houses completely inundated. And all too predictably, in the chaos over 800,000 Michiganders lost power.
In the midst of this crisis, I found myself volunteering in Detroit where the flooding had been particularly devastating. I carpooled there with a group of volunteers from Ann Arbor for Public Power (A2P2), a local organization dedicated to replacing DTE with a more reliable municipal public power utility. We went to help Detroiters who experienced flooding in their homes, an effort organized by Nechama (נחמה), a Jewish disaster-response group that aims to provide relief to those who have lived through catastrophe. Their name, Nechama, which means “to comfort,” was chosen to signify the group’s mission to provide the comfort of basic amenities after experiencing disaster. It didn’t take much to convince my fellow A2P2 volunteers that this was an organization worth volunteering for. In many ways, Nechama’s guiding principles reminded me of why I originally became a member of A2P2. I was driven to piece together a little part of our broken world and fight to give my neighbors a bit of much-needed comfort in difficult times.
It was with this mission that we began at the first house in the Detroit suburbs. The father of the house recounted to us the events of the flood. Human sewage had flowed backward up through their drains, he said. It had filled the basement, but he couldn’t remove anything because his disability made travelling up and down the stairs extremely difficult. We went down with crowbars and a dolly to see what we could do. The drywall, soaked and molded, had to be completely torn out up to hip level and the countless family heirlooms soiled from the sewage needed to be removed and thrown away. At one point I remember holding up a string of family photos that had been sitting in a filthy puddle; the liquid had warped most of the pictures, but I could still make out some scenes from important occasions: half of a child’s birthday party here, part of a beloved grandma there. Like almost everything that we removed from the basement, the photos were unceremoniously tossed in a dumpster.
It was later revealed in a report commissioned by the Great Lakes Water Authority that the widespread DTE power outages had played a “large role” in the flooding as several municipal pump stations, deprived of electricity, ground to a halt. At the same time, many houses and businesses that owned their own pumps couldn’t turn them on and even the Michigan Department of Transportation couldn’t activate its industrial pumps that keep the highways clear of floodwater. DTE’s excuse for its role in the crisis was that no one could have prepared for this historic storm. Similar excuses were given by DTE during the February 2023 ice storm that resulted in over 800,000 outages, and again during the recent storm in July that knocked out the power of about 200,000 residents. But as the families like the one we helped in Detroit were suffering, DTE shareholders were celebrating. While DTE’s grid was experiencing catastrophic failure, DTE was reporting year after year of record profits.
The injustices of such a situation cry out for an alternative, and thankfully there is one. While DTE holds a monopoly on Southeastern Michigan, part of the Michigan Constitution allows cities to forcibly acquire private utilities in their jurisdictions and replace them with public utilities. This process called municipalization is exactly what Ann Arbor for Public Power wants to do. To understand the differences between private utilities and public utilities, it’s important to understand the shortcomings of a utility like DTE and compare it to nearby public utilities like the ones in Lansing, Chelsea, Holland, and Traverse City. There are in fact 42 municipal public power utilities in Michigan that perform impressively well across a number of metrics when compared to DTE.
One of the most obvious problems with DTE is its unreliability. During the February 2023 ice storm outages, DTE’s grid in Washtenaw County experienced a catastrophic failure with over 45% of all residents in the county losing power, many for up to a week. Meanwhile, in Lansing, their public power utility reported fewer than 100 outages in all and restored everyone’s power in a matter of days. While DTE sends profits of over $1 billion annually to investors, public power utilities like Lansing Board of Water and Light can invest all of their excess revenue back into the grid and fund preventative maintenance. That’s because public power utilities aren’t profit-driven; rather, they’re dedicated to advancing the public good. Private investor-owned utilities like DTE, on the other hand, are obsessed with squeezing as much money as they can out of the grid and the residents they hold hostage. One day after the ice storm, DTE held a shareholder meeting to proudly boast about increasing profits by deferring vital preventative maintenance that could have helped prevent outages and increase safety. What this stark contrast reveals is that their real stakeholders aren’t us, the residents, they’re the stockholders on Wall Street.
That brings us to the next issue with DTE; they aren’t run democratically. Despite experiencing issues with reliability for years, DTE seems to only be getting worse, not better. It’s the job of our state legislature to regulate DTE. In reality, however, DTE’s hefty contributions to legislators on both sides of the aisle mean that it’s actually DTE that regulates our representatives, not the other way around. Through their contributions and lobbying, DTE blocks climate legislation and utility accountability bills. It’s because of their lack of accountability in the political world that DTE was rated the fourth dirtiest major utility in the U.S. last year. Public power utilities, on the other hand, are controlled by boards appointed by local governments or elected directly by the people. Importantly, with democratic structures, communities can demand that their public power utilities ditch fossil fuels and embrace cleaner energy portfolios and residential rooftop solar. They don’t need to finance aggressive lobbying campaigns and pricy political contributions; instead, they invest all that money back into the grid to make it more resilient. This prevents costly outages that we, the public, always pay for.
When DTE outages occur, the economic costs are enormous. A recent report found that the economic losses due to outages were about $3.5 billion statewide. And it’s no wonder why that staggering figure is so high; when the power goes out, remote workers can’t do their jobs, businesses are forced to close down, and large amounts of food and medicine spoil. Other losses are harder to calculate. The elderly and disabled can’t use their AC and heating in extreme temperatures, nor can they power vital medical devices, and tragically, every year there are fatalities caused by downed wires. At the end of the day, we all pay for DTE’s mismanagement. And when residents are unable to pay their bills, DTE quickly shuts off the power and sells their debt to debt collectors. In 2020 and 2021, during the height of the pandemic, DTE shut off the power to residents more than 250,000 times for nonpayment, outpacing all utilities in the region. This is what happens when a necessary public good is commodified by a for-profit utility. Residents aren’t treated as people but as profit points on a spreadsheet. Unsurprisingly, public power utilities just don’t have these problems. They are significantly more reliable, meaning fewer outages for vulnerable residents, and they don’t engage in harmful practices like selling debt because they’re community-oriented and locally controlled.
As I came to understand the great injustices caused by DTE’s greed, the sadness I felt for the victims of those floods turned to anger. How could this be allowed to continue for so long while so many suffer? The existence of a way out, an alternative to the status quo, gives me hope. It is hope that allows me to channel outrage into action and we will need an enormous amount of collective action to win this fight. While completely legal, the process of municipalization hasn’t been undertaken in Michigan in over 100 years. Taking back our grid is going to be a tough battle against one of the strongest corporations in our state. That means that we need to build a broad coalition of dedicated neighbors to counter DTE’s looming PR onslaught. It means that we will need to knock on every door in Ann Arbor and use every opportunity to show our neighbors that there is a better way. DTE will try everything to keep us from winning this fight, but I have hope that we will win.
I believe that by engaging in this struggle we fulfill the eternal goal of Tikkun Olam, working to repair a small corner of our world. But the impact of this fight extends far beyond the borders of our small city of Ann Arbor. If we can take back our grid here in Ann Arbor, we pave the way for other cities to do the same through legal precedent. And while today our battle is in Ann Arbor, we understand that this is part of a much greater war against the injustices of corporate greed and climate change. We must rectify these injustices before us; at the very least, we must try. If you would like to join us in the fight, you can sign up for A2P2’s newsletter, become a member, or make a donation at our website: AnnArborPublicPower.org.