A man in a green button down shirt and jeans speaks into a microphone. People sitting in chairs surround him.
Former Maine Representative, Seth Berry, speaks at the Public Power is Climate Action panel at the Dana building Sunday afternoon. Lucas Chen/Daily. Buy this photo.

About 100 students and Ann Arbor community members gathered in the Samuel Trask Dana Building auditorium Sunday afternoon to listen to politicians and activists discuss possibilities for public power in Ann Arbor. Hosted by Ann Arbor for Public Power, the event largely centered discussion around transitioning energy ownership from DTE to the Ann Arbor community.

Ann Arbor for Public Power advocates for a municipal public power organization, or muni, in the city. The group argues that public power makes electricity more affordable in the long term, allowing the city to choose environmentally-friendly electricity sources and ensure more reliable power for Ann Arbor residents, reducing power outages in the city.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Rackham student Kate Napier said she attended the discussion to show her support for public power in light of recent power outages.

“We’ve seen just this summer how unreliable people’s power in Ann Arbor can be,” Napier said. “And so I think that, in line with the fact that the climate crisis is so urgent, it’s more important than ever to switch to public power.”

In July, DTE announced plans to eliminate its use of coal by 2032. The announcement accelerated the company’s 2022 plan to eliminate coal by 2035 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, which was met with criticism for relying too heavily on natural gas as a substitute for coal. Activists also claimed the 2022 plan did not move to carbon neutrality fast enough.

Arun Agrawal, professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability and the event’s moderator, said he believed public power is an integral step toward climate solutions.

“Many of you come to (Ann Arbor for Public Power) because of climate,” Agrawal said. “Some of you come to it because it promises to provide more sustainable, more reliable and more renewable energy. I come to it for a very different reason. To my mind, no transformation, no change, is possible if it relies on change from the same old cliche actors that have brought us to this crisis.”

State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he often hears concerns about the costs of creating a public power utility in the city. He compared the cost of acquiring DTE’s power grid to that of renting a home to live in.

“I would encourage you to think about this just like you would (think) about the decision whether or not to rent versus to buy,” Irwin said. “The practical reality is that when you rent, you still pay for it. You just don’t own it at the end of the day. And in any situation where you’re in it for the long term usually makes sense to buy. That’s when you can really make the investments and fix it.”

Panelist Seth Berry, a former state representative from Maine who is an active advocate for a statewide public power utility in Maine, said affordable public power makes renewable energy more accessible to people from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

“The energy burden (is) dramatically regressive and falls much harder on the shoulders of those who can least afford it,” Berry said. “If we’re going to get everyone there, to clean energy, guess what? We need to make that clean energy more affordable. It has to be cheaper.”

Coal, natural gas and oil made up 68.58% of the fuel used to produce DTE’s electricity in 2022. On average, energy companies across the Great Lakes reported that approximately 66% of their energy came from those three sources. By comparison, the average public power utility in the U.S. generated 59.3% of its power from these three sources in 2021, according to the American Public Power Association’s 2023 statistical report.

Electricity production emits a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions. Berry said many other areas besides building heating and cooling, such as transportation, will need to be electrified to reduce emissions.

“So some people say, ‘What’s the problem?’” Berry said. “‘Why do we need to take back our power? Why do we need to confront our utilities? They seem to be doing well.’ Well guess what? There’s $6 billion a year being spent on fossil fuels. It’s 54% of our emissions from transportation, 30% from building heating and cooling, 9% from factories, and we have to electrify all of that.”

Ann Arbor is currently waiting on the results of a feasibility study into the prospect of adopting public power, which it ordered in September of last year. Berry recalled ordering a similar feasibility study in his home state of Maine. He said while Ann Arbor’s feasibility study will likely show cost-saving benefits to adopting public power, it would also likely express caution about the possibility.

“You will find that most of the consultants who do this work will hedge their bets,” Berry said. “They will say … ‘You know, we think it’ll look like this, but it could be twice as expensive. It could be twice as cheap. We think that this is legal, but the utilities may try to tie it up in court and they might argue XYZ.’ … You really do have to, first of all, expect that kind of language, and be ready to beat back against it.”

The creation of a municipal utility in Michigan requires a 60% vote by the residents in the municipality. In response to an audience question about a potential timeframe for when the issue might appear on the ballot in Ann Arbor, moderator Greg Woodring, president of Ann Arbor for Public Power, said while it is hard to predict when the proposal would appear on the ballot, the next step after getting the results of the feasibility study is to order a valuation study which would determine how much DTE would demand in exchange for their power grid in Ann Arbor.

Local resident Xianli Tang attended the event and told The Daily she found it inspiring to be around people of all ages who were passionate about public power and climate change.

“You hear the politicians that are trying to seek ways around the politics and trying to make things work,” Tang said. “It’s also good to see people across the generations today that are fired up for this cause … That’s always inspiring to be among the people, too, because a lot of times you feel some sort of loneliness when you think about this issue.”

Daily Staff Reporter Abigail VanderMolen can be reached at vabigail@umich.edu.