Opinion: DTE's rate increases punish the region's poorest customers 

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During the record-breaking cold weather earlier this year, DTE Energy told Michiganders to cut back on our energy use to avert grid failure. I did it, along with many Michiganders, to prevent harm to my community. We all thought of the greater good. But the same cannot be said of DTE.

DTE is about to hit poorer communities and those who use less energy with whopping rate increases. We need to demand justice when it comes to energy costs, and we need to make DTE and the Michigan Public Service Commission hear our demands.

Dialing back your thermostat is supposed to keep the bill down. But DTE is pushing for a rate increase of 45 percent on their lowest-income, lowest-usage residential customers, compared to the already oppressive 19 percent being levied on the average residential customer. In short: DTE is penalizing us for doing in advance what they frantically implored us to do during the polar vortex — conserving energy.

By DTE's own admission, these rates are regressive. To demand conservation during a crisis and punish it in their rates is the definition of hypocrisy.

DTE claims they need these hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in safety and reliability. But their spending plan is based on utility cost savings and helping communities that are improving economically, rather than helping the communities that need it most. An MPSC report found there were twice as many deaths in Detroit due to downed wires and aging infrastructure than in the rest of their service territory. The premise of DTE's request — that their most impacted customers should pay the highest increase for DTE's failure to maintain infrastructure — is unjust. And they are not building infrastructure for distributing clean energy — they are building it for two giant gas plants, whose life cycle emissions will continue to create the climate change responsible for the polar vortex and other wild weather patterns.

DTE also plans to cut back in-person and phone customer service, investing millions in digitally automated systems. This is a terrible blow to the hundreds of thousands of low-income customers who lack internet access and to people who prefer to talk to another human being when they experience problems. Research from the University of Michigan showed that energy-efficiency programs do not reach DTE's lowest-income customers, and our cross-examination revealed that DTE's low-income programs are poorly managed, and impact is insufficiently tracked. Combined with poor infrastructure maintenance in low-income communities and the regressive rate hike, this amounts to a massive shakedown on the most vulnerable and the elimination of services they rely on to survive.

DTE is asking for a guaranteed 10.5 percent profit on these investments. Before raising rates on poor communities, DTE should be required to account for their historic failure to serve those communities by cutting back their profit margins.

The Michigan Public Service Commission denied a request for public hearings to get direct input from those who will be impacted by this oppressive increase. But they can still do the right thing by rejecting DTE's proposal and sending DTE back to the drawing board to create a rate structure that is fair, just, and equitable to all of Michigan's people.

Jackson Koeppel is the executive director of Soulardarity, an activist group in Highland Park.

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