The Michigan Daily caught up with state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, to discuss June’s monsoon-like flooding in Washtenaw County, which left many in Ann Arbor without power for nearly a week.
Rabhi expressed his frustration with the fact that Michigan’s power system is largely privately owned, making it difficult to resolve problems for residents.
“The power outages highlighted not just the need for us to transition to renewable energy to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis, but also highlighted the complete lack of accountability of our privately-owned, investor-owned utilities,” Rabhi said.
Rabhi said he takes particular issue with what he sees as a lack of investment from companies like DTE Energy into the power grid.. This could help avoid prolonged outages from natural disasters like flooding, especially in light of the company’s reported large earnings each year.
“At the end of the day, the reason that the grid is so terrible is because (energy companies are) not investing in the grid,” Rabhi said. “DTE and (Consumers Energy) combined walked away with $2 billion in profits last year. That’s $2 billion that they could have invested in our grid and our infrastructure, and instead, that’s money that they shipped off to Wall Street to their investors.”
According to their website, DTE distributes a $25 credit to customers after outages to cover damages if they determine the outage occurred for more than 120 hours during catastrophic conditions, including flooding.
Rabhi thinks this amount of money is not enough to rectify the damages sustained by Ann Arbor residents.
“That’s ridiculous,” Rabhi said. “$25 does not cover anything when it comes to your expenses, in terms of the food that you lose, the medicine that you lose in your fridge and your freezer. Not to mention all of the other pain and suffering that comes out of not having power. The utilities need to be held accountable — they need to pay up.”
Rabhi told The Daily that his office is working on introducing legislation to hold the energy companies accountable financially through a stronger outage credit.
In addition to this legislation, Rabhi also said he is advocating for Ann Arbor to shift toward municipally-owned utilities. In this case, the local government would own and operate the power and electricity for the city as opposed to residents paying for their power directly to companies like DTE or Consumers Energy. The Ann Arbor City Council plans to seek a feasibility study to discuss whether to create public power municipal utilities in the future.
Multiple communities throughout Michigan have shifted to a municipally-owned utility, including Lansing, Traverse City, Charlevoix and Harbor Springs.
Advocates of this plan say that because the town could operate the utilities as a nonprofit, it would be exempt from paying taxes. This provides more space in the budget for the upkeep of infrastructure and updating equipment, thereby reducing the number of power outages.
Rabhi said he was excited about the idea of more money being reinvested into the power grid if the city were to have control.
“The data shows us that municipal utilities have less power outages — their power gets restored faster, their rates are lower and there’s accountability,” Rabhi said. “We don’t have that right now with the current privately held, for-profit utilities. And all the profits, of course, (would) get reinvested back into the grid, back into the community, and that’s how it should be.”
Greg Woodring, co-founder of the Ann Arbor Public Power advocacy group whose goal is to “democratize, decommodify, decarbonize and decolonize” Ann Arbor’s energy grid, told The Daily he was excited about some of the prospects of municipal utilities, which could include helping Ann Arbor shift towards carbon-neutral power sources.
“What DTE does is they generate their power using primarily coal and fossil fuel plants, disproportionately located in lower income neighborhoods and marginalized communities,” Woodring said. “We would be able to connect to that same grid, which means that we wouldn’t necessarily need to buy (power) from DTE. We could buy from a solar plant that’s operating out in Arizona, we could buy from a wind farm on the Great Lakes.”
Daily Staff Reporter Christian Juliano can be reached at email@example.com.