Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect more recent data about the University of Michigan’s environmental impact.
Every light you flick on, every outlet you use to charge your Mac, every elevator you ascend at the University of Michigan is powered by Detroit-based DTE Energy. During my second semester at the University, I vividly remember looking across the Crisler Center during a basketball game at a sign that advertised something to the effect of “DTE: green energy.” The sign caught my eye after discussing the company in a Sustainable Living Experience first-year seminar just a few weeks prior.
Although DTE presents themselves as providing primarily clean energy to their customers, our discussions in my seminar told a different story. My professor told us not to fall for their misleading marketing tactics. Greenwashing, or marketing oneself as more sustainable than they are by using isolated examples, is an incredibly deceitful method that DTE takes advantage of. Despite the environmentally conscious image DTE paints of themselves, my peers and I were informed that the company currently derives only 8.92% of its energy from renewable sources.
It is urgent that corporations like DTE stop putting harmful greenhouse gasses into the Earth’s atmosphere. Even if we got rid of all greenhouse gas emissions today, the temperature of the planet’s surface would continue to increase by 0.6 degrees Celsius over the next century due to preexisting excess emissions. This concept is alarming because even a change of this size in overall temperatures can have catastrophic consequences on biodiversity, water and food availability, ecosystems like forests and oceans, the economy and plants and animals, while increasing the frequency and aggressiveness of natural disasters.
Although DTE is missing the sustainability mark, I still have hope for the future. The Senate recently passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which will promote environmentally-friendly systems like clean vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels in the United States. The bill aims to invest $370 billion dollars (paid for largely by tax increases on big corporations) into energy security and climate change programs over the next 10 years. The bill will be the largest climate investment ever taken by the U.S. government.
This recent progress leads me to believe that it is possible to start moving in the right direction regarding using renewable energies. The City of Ann Arbor, the University & municipal power companies like DTE need to take a much more active role in prioritizing renewable energy sources and set an example for other companies and institutions. The Inflation Reduction Act will encourage them to do this, but it’s something they should be doing anyway.
In recent years, the University has been decreasing its carbon footprint, but it can — & must — do better in putting pressure on DTE to actually go green. While DTE is taking steps to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, we must demand for change much sooner than that. The company has skewed their net zero pledge by choosing 2005 to be their baseline, meaning they have already reduced about a quarter of their emissions since that time. This leaves a goal of just over 25% of emissions to be cut by 2030, since DTE is aiming for a cut of 50% eight years from now. Starting from a baseline year from 17 years ago, a time since which they increased their emissions significantly, is extremely misleading regarding how much environmental progress DTE has made.
Not only is DTE skewing their numbers, but they are also relying on lesser-available technologies like carbon sequestration, modular nuclear reactors and extremely efficient energy storage in order to reach their goal. It seems that the company will not be able to reach net zero without these methods — which are extremely expensive or not commercialized yet. DTE has even chosen to implement gas plants in place of coal ones instead of switching over to renewable energy plants, leaving customers paying more for their electricity. These poor financial decisions shine light on how little DTE actually cares about its customers.
DTE’s effort to achieve zero emissions is admirable on paper, but, considering the company’s practices, this goal is simply a byproduct of greenwashing. They should be educating customers about climate change and informing them on how to reduce their individual carbon footprints. But more than that, DTE needs to make environmentally-conscious decisions to be loyal to their net zero pledge. I hope the recent decisions by Congress incentivize the company to make the necessary changes. Aside from the underwhelming progress they have made, DTE must stop misleading the state of Michigan and the students of the University of Michigan.
Leah Larsen is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.