Each year, some unlucky residence hall on campus faces a power outage with the culprit unknown. This year’s latest victim was the Mary Markley Residence Hall, where students faced two random power outages in early September that lasted for multiple hours. History proves this certainly won’t be the last hall to experience this as Oxford Residence Hall went through the same thing twice last January. While these outages affect a small portion of students actively on campus, they terrorize the greater Ann Arbor area. MLive dubbed Ann Arbor the “Bermuda Triangle” of electricity outages, as thousands of Washtenaw County residents, including students living off campus, experience power outages at an unprecedented rate.
When power outages become this common, it’s not hard to turn to Ann Arbor’s energy supplier, DTE, for an explanation. Power outages have become so detrimental to the citizens of Ann Arbor that some have started a nonprofit citizen group called Ann Arbor for Public Power. They are calling for a complete overhaul of DTE and for Ann Arbor to create its own energy grid. The group argues that a public power grid will be more sustainable, efficient and cost-effective than continuing to rely on DTE. The University of Michigan has been left out of this call to action — the group is focusing on rallying the citizens of Ann Arbor and petitioning the city government.
The University should be at the forefront of this movement. As one of DTE’s biggest customers, The University generates millions of dollars for the company each year. But, a university that values supporting students, sustainable development and outreach to the community should not be supporting an energy company as unreliable, wasteful and overall greed-driven as DTE.
Power outages primarily affect students living in off-campus housing. Though off-campus housing isn’t regulated by the University, it still has programs such as Beyond the Diag and Student Legal Services, which provide resources about off-campus housing and help in working through housing problems. The University should extend that assistance by offering resources to students facing electrical outages.
The University’s Carbon Neutrality Commitment plans to eliminate carbon emissions for electricity bought from non-U-M suppliers by 2025. The Commission on Carbon Neutrality said that the University should switch to renewable energy and purchase Renewable Energy Certificates, which would focus on renewable energy from off-campus sources. Still, there has been little action, with only 21% of the University’s energy source coming from these RECs. As 2023 comes to an end, it’s hard to believe that the University will successfully reach its goal without a drastic switch in its current energy practices.
Instead of pursuing these research findings, the University has opted to join DTE’s MIGreenPower initiative, which allows the user to choose how much of their energy consumption comes from renewable sources. DTE is not nearly as sustainable as it claims to be, producing only 8.29% of its energy from renewable sources, and Washtenaw County has seen a 10.78% drop in renewable energy usage within the past year.
The University, however, paints DTE’s program as a path to carbon neutrality. Whether the University’s support for DTE is because switching providers is hard or because of the University’s long-term contract with DTE, U-M administrators need to look for better solutions to reducing its carbon footprint. The University needs to be above these marketing tactics in order to look for real, sustainable solutions.
By staying in a contract with the company, the University is giving DTE permission to do so. Currently, commercial electricity rates are 8.33% higher than they are in the U.S., and in Ann Arbor, rates are 4.75% higher than Michigan’s average residential price. This gap could continue to increase as DTE asked the state of Michigan to increase rates by roughly 14%, more than half of what experts say the company needs. This would bring their profitability to 10.25%, a cost that would be completely eliminated with the public power program.
More than 40 townships in Michigan have switched over to public power and have seen massive improvements in reliability, savings and environmental emissions. Chelsea Township has cut its emissions by 33% and its costs by 55%. By switching to public power, the University could potentially save thousands of dollars on electricity while also cutting its emissions in half. These savings could be reinvested back into the students at the University or projects that would cut emissions even more.
The University has the power to create massive change by choosing to switch over from DTE to another energy source. This decision will not only affect the upwards of 100,000 people who are a part of the University, but will also put pressure on Washtenaw County to follow suit. This switch will provide reliable, sustainable energy that will help the University reach its goal of off-campus carbon neutrality. The switch to public power will be a long journey, but it will reduce the University’s emission rates, save the University money and stop the University from giving money to a predatory company.
Eliza Phares is an Opinion Columnist from Portage, Michigan writing about student life and policy. She can be reached at email@example.com.