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Opinion | From Detroit to the UP, Michigan deserves energy savings

We know, regardless of whether you live in southeast Michigan or the Upper Peninsula, we all share concerns about the energy that powers our homes.  As our climate continues to drastically intensify with heavy rains in the summer and colder winters, we need access to affordable energy to protect us when we’re at our most vulnerable. It’s unfair that people across Michigan have enormous energy bills when solutions exist to solve this injustice. The energy affordability crisis, along with the climate crisis, should force us to act and change our energy systems.

Jenn Hill, Gabriela Santiago-Romero
Jenn Hill is a Marquette city commissioner; Gabriela Santiago-Romero is a Detroit city councilmember. (Courtesy photos)

When flooding ravaged metro Detroit during the summer of 2021, thousands lost power that left spoiled food in the refrigerator. At a time when families are paying record-high grocery bills, having to throw out a week’s worth of food creates both heartbreak and avoidable costs. Polar vortexes that roll through Upper Peninsula winters drive up energy use and commonly lead to unfair price gouging, leaving people struggling to stay warm.

Immediate solutions exist to rectify energy injustice and the ongoing climate crisis, including performance-based regulation on utilities, income-based payment plans, and new technologies. All these solutions can reduce how much you pay on your energy bill, while creating better health outcomes and good-paying jobs.

What is performance-based regulation? It means you should only pay for what you get and if a utility doesn't provide service, then it doesn't get paid. In March of 2022, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) changed its rules regarding power outages so that credits will be issued to people automatically depending on several factors, such as how long the outages last and how many customers are impacted. There’s also a new package of bills in the state legislature (House Bills 6043-6047) that provide even greater requirements for utilities to authorize bill credits and make improvements to the grid to decrease outages. Detroiters could have benefitted from these reforms during the summer of 2021 when many residents were left without power for more than five days.

Next, let’s implement income-based payment plans to save Michiganders money on energy bills, which are among the highest in the country. Income-based energy bills are a compassionate and cost-effective way to help prevent shutoffs. Besides ensuring a steady revenue stream to the energy provider, they also allow families to keep their lights on. These plans put a ceiling for what energy utilities can charge you, which the MPSC can regulate. Many would benefit: in a new study from Our Power MI, more than a third of respondents from Wayne to Baraga counties said they were paying over 10 percent of their income on energy costs. Guaranteeing that people can afford to heat and cool their homes must be a statewide priority.

Finally, technology needs to be brought into homes, businesses, and schools to reduce emissions and energy costs. We need to weatherize and modernize buildings and establish micro power grids to create more reliable and cost-lowering energy systems. Microgrids provide an important layer of backup support to the main energy grid, which is desperately needed to reduce power outages. 

Other cost-saving and pollution-lowering technologies we can use include electric heat pumps, hot water heaters and induction stoves. Transportation options are growing rapidly with many new models of electric buses, cars, scooters and e-bikes. The millions in federal infrastructure dollars coming to Michigan can be used to fund these necessary improvements.

Across Michigan, rural and urban communities are already taking matters into their own hands to expand quality, affordable clean energy. The village of L’Anse in the Western Upper Peninsula has a publicly-owned solar energy grid. Highland Park in Wayne County is also developing community-generated renewable energy as an alternative to corporate-owned utilities, thanks to organizers with Soulardarity. These systems are working in both rural and urban areas and elected officials should take note.

Our energy use isn’t just about cents per kilowatt; it’s about our homes, and our sustainability. Rather than paying into this current system, which leaves too many of us on unequal footing, we need solutions that build safe, healthy, and thriving communities.

Developing new energy systems might look different in southeast Michigan than it would in the Upper Peninsula, but it’s clear that all Michiganders would benefit and there are lessons that can be shared across the state regardless of ZIP code. Our health, climate, and access to resources are at risk the longer we allow the status quo.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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