The Ann Arbor City Council is seeking a feasibility study to weigh the pros and cons of switching from DTE Energy to more public power utilities in the city of Ann Arbor.
More than 73,000 DTE Energy customers — including those in Ann Arbor — lost power Tuesday evening due to heavy storms as the council was discussing the possibility of a feasibility study.
The resolution asks the city’s Energy Commission to provide a recommendation for whether the council should implement a study by Sept. 14. City Council members unanimously approved the resolution after amending it to extend the Energy Commission’s deadline to Dec. 31.
Ann Arbor resident Lauren Sargent spoke at the meeting, saying she thinks municipal utility is a necessary tool for the city to achieve its A2Zero goal and combat climate change. She urged the council to replace the city’s current “monopoly-owned utility — DTE — with a community-owned utility,” especially in light of the recent thunderstorms and subsequent power outages across the city.
“We all witnessed the catastrophic failure of DTE to restore power during dangerously hot and humid conditions,” Sargent said. “This was not the work of mother nature, but a combination of 40 plus years of DTE’s failure to invest in infrastructure, plus the more intense storms growing from climate change.”
Ann Arbor Ward 5 resident Kathleen Murphey also spoke out in support of the resolution. She stressed that DTE’s dependence on fossil fuels is worsening the effects of the climate crisis and asked the council to conduct the feasibility study as soon as possible.
“Given their expansion of fossil fuel use, as well as poor reliability in times of severe storm, it is time to seek an alternative to our current energy provider,” Murphey said. “I believe a publicly owned and managed utility could be the answer.”
In October, the Energy Commission is scheduled to hear from representatives of Boulder, Colorado and Winter Park, Florida, two communities that implemented municipalized utility, Radina said. Though Boulder residents approved the municipal energy source about a decade ago, they voted to discontinue the project in 2020.
During the council’s deliberation, Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, moved to amend the original resolution to push back the Energy Commission’s deadline to Dec. 31, rather than rushing for Sept. 14. Radina, one of the council’s Energy Commission liaisons, said the original resolution does not allow enough time for the commission to investigate a well-informed recommendation to the council.
“This highly anticipated and long-scheduled session was requested by Energy Commissioners and scheduled at the earliest opportunity afforded by the communities who will be presenting,” Radina said. “This resolution would arbitrarily cut short that work and demand a recommendation be returned from the Energy Commission just seven days from tonight, before commissioners are able to complete their planned research into the topic, follow up on any remaining questions that they may have, conclude their due diligence, or provide a thorough recommendation.”
Councilmember Erica Briggs, D-Ward 5, seconded Radina’s motion and emphasized that municipal utilities have not been created in Michigan for decades.
“This is not something that’s done every day,” Briggs said. “And for a 120-to-150,000 dollar feasibility study, if that’s what we’re voting on at some point, we want to make sure that we get what we want out of that feasibility study and that we’re really examining the multiple options that we need.”
Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, who sponsored the original resolution, said that a feasibility study has already been discussed among Energy Commission members. She emphasized that the resolution is a small step forward for municipal utility and urged the council to act sooner rather than later.
“I would argue that if our community felt very strongly about this, if our community felt a compelling need, Council could act without first asking for input from the Energy Commission,” Nelson said. “My resolution is specifically asking for their input with the knowledge that they have been discussing this for months. I’m asking for them to suggest their opinion as to whether we should invest a small amount of money in a small step forward, a feasibility study that is going to be necessary before we know what else is possible.”
Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, acknowledged that there is a sense of urgency for the study given the number of recent storms and problems with DTE over the past month. But Grand ultimately said she supported Radina’s amended resolution because she believed the commission should have enough time to think through the plan thoroughly.
“I’m not anxious to take over DTE’s infrastructure necessarily,” Grand said. “And even though this is an idea that’s gaining popularity, we have tremendous expertise, both in terms of our commission and in the city, and maybe there’s a different way. And I understand that would be part of a feasibility study, but we really have an opportunity to be leaders here, to do things well, and so giving the commission the time to do that important work, and really do their due diligence is important.”
The Council voted 9-2 in favor of amending the resolution to extend the Energy Commission’s deadline, with Councilmembers Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, and Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, opposing.
The Council then moved to discuss the approval of the amended resolution. Hayner, who was in support of the original resolution, said he would now support the amended resolution because he believed the municipal system is a more sustainable energy option that is worth looking into.
“There’s no way of really knowing what goes on with these public-private utilities (where) the state has its oversight commissions, and they never balk at raising the rates,” Hayner said. “Now, a well-managed municipal utility can lower the kilowatt-hour rate. It can provide alternatives to polluting fossil fuels, although we are coming up against some barriers when it comes to the tact around solar and wind (energy) and so on. Some actual physical barriers, and so it’s going to be a big push to get around fossil fuels no matter what we think.”
Mayor Christopher Taylor also expressed his support for the amended resolution, saying he believes the motion honors the work of community member volunteers and Council staff and would prove useful for the potential production of municipal facilities.
“I am glad that we are going to have the opportunity, with the Energy Commission’s guidance and leadership, to have a common factual understanding of what municipalization means,” Taylor said. “What it means for us moving forward, what it might cost and whether it will give us the benefit that we want in the timeframe that we require.”
Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.