In 2018, Metro Detroit-based environmental justice organizations launched the Work for Me, DTE! campaign as monopoly utility DTE Energy prepared to submit their 15-year energy plan, called an Integrated Resource Plan, to the Michigan Public Service Commission.
Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, Soulardarity, Citizens’ Resistance Against Fermi Two, We Want Green Too, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Ecology Center, Empower Michigan, Michigan Interfaith Power & Light, EcoWorks, Sierra Club and others — shared a vision of a regenerative economy focused on community solar, energy efficiency retrofits, good jobs, and wealth creation in poor, working class, Black and Indigenous communities.
If we want energy democracy we need to organize around it, if we want energy justice, we must mobilize against the powerful interests of utility lobbyists and paid politicians. Together we can build the kind of renewable energy economy that is equitable and provides clean air for all our communities.Michelle Martinez, MEJC acting executive director
DTE Energy, which serves 2.1 million customers in Michigan, mainly in the Metro Detroit area — was (and still is) in the thick of building out a new generation of fossil fuel infrastructure, while allowing neighborhood-level infrastructure to crumble, stifling solar and pollution-free energy, and performing more than 200,000 shutoffs annually to families unable to pay some of the nation’s fastest-rising bills.
In 2017, DTE and its unregulated affiliates got approval to build two new pipelines, Rover and Nexus, which feed fracked gas from eastern Ohio and the Appalachian Basin into Southeast Michigan and around the region; DTE also proposed, and subsequently got approval, to build a new $1.1 billion gas plant near Port Huron, Michigan; and to to purchase gas from their own pipeline at above-market rates. The Michigan Public Service Commission will likely require customers to bear the costs of this infrastructure build-out, plus a 9.9% profit margin, for decades – even as the climate crisis necessitates that we transition our power sector to 100% renewable energy as quickly as possible, and as the price of solar and wind energy falls far below that of fossil fuel energy.
The Work for Me, DTE! Campaign (W4M DTE) brought on four community leaders to serve as Energy Democracy Fellows at the beginning of 2019, just as DTE filed their IRP. Through Michigan’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) process, utilities are required to comprehensively spell out their expectations for energy demand over the next 15 years, provide alternative pathways for meeting that demand, and provide reasons for selecting the pathway they did. If the Public Service Commission approves the utility’s IRP, the utility is all but guaranteed authority to recover costs (read: “raise rates”) to implement the plan. Through trainings led by Soulardarity, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC), and others, the Fellows learned about the energy system behind the bill — how energy is made, the impacts on community health and wellbeing, and about the insidious “power politics” of the energy system. The Campaign focused on three demands: Health, Affordability, and Community Power in decision making.
Together, the Fellows and campaign coalition members pushed the Public Service Commission to hold a public hearing in Detroit, organized dozens of residents to attend and give public comment, and drove more than 3,000 public comments to the DTE IRP online docket. Fellows also traveled to Lansing, Michigan to educate elected officials, connected with energy democracy activists across the country, and plugged into political action on climate justice.
W4M DTE also employed insider tactics on the IRP. The Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition worked with researchers at the University of Michigan to conduct the first ever Health Impact Assessment [LINK] of the DTE Energy Integrated Resource Plan. The assessment shows extreme racial inequity across DTE’s service territory, with wealthier, whiter, and suburban communities having more efficient homes, lower energy burden, less pollution exposure, and lower health costs associated with air pollution and extreme heat exposure, compared to Black, People of Color, immigrant, and low-income communities.
Soulardarity worked with the University of Chicago Abrams Clinic and Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to legally intervene in the IRP case, as well other high-impact cases, before the Michigan Public Service Commission. Together with unprecedented public pressure, these tactics pushed the needle on energy justice: In her recommendation on the DTE IRP case, the MPSC’s Administrative Law Judge adopted W4M DTE’s demand that health be considered in utility planning. The MPSC failed to adopt this recommendation, but declined to approve DTE’s IRP, instead instructing the utility to make modifications. Six months later, in an Executive Directive on Climate, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered the MPSC to consider health in future IRP cases.
The Work for Me, DTE! Campaign has created new space for justice-based advocacy in Michigan’s technocratic energy decision-making sphere. Individually, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization has achieved wins on affordable payment plans for low-income families; Soulardarity has threatened DTE’s business model with implementation of solar streetlights and energy efficiency; and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center has fought state regulators on utility requests for new permits to pollute in environmental justice communities. Together, the coalition asserts the power of frontline impacted communities to have a say in how we stay warm, connect and plug in, address environmental racism, and plan for a changing climate.