In 2020, MEJC advocated for a #NoShutoffs policy: A mandatory moratorium on utility shutoffs during the pandemic. But while many utilities voluntarily suspended shutoffs for families behind on bills through the summer, DTE Energy began shutting off between 3,000-4,000 homes weekly in November, as temperatures dropped.  Energy costs in Michigan were already at crisis levels, with DTE performing about 200,000 shutoffs every year before the pandemic; during a pandemic, unaffordable energy makes it even more difficult for families to safely #StayAtHome.

This year, MEJC, in partnership with the Work for Me, DTE! Campaign, set out to make the case that all families — whether we’re Black, Native, working class, renters or owners — should have a warm home in the winter, and affordable energy all year around.

To achieve this goal, MEJC set out to interview 1,000 Michiganders living in Detroit and the Upper Peninsula about the impacts of high energy costs on their households. The interviews are a part of a research project led by We Want Green Too, and University of Michigan graduate student researcher Kate Hutchens.

Gloria Lowe, Executive Director of We Want Green Too, came up with the idea and serves as the client to the project. WWGT is a non-profit on the eastside of Detroit that trains veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to renovate homes. “Detroit homes are old, and our incomes are not big. I know for a fact, Black Detroit, our seniors, struggle to pay DTE high bills.” She argues, “That has to change. WWGT believes renovating our homes can put people to work, give people dignity of affordable energy, and solve climate problems.” Over sixty percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Detroit come from our built environment, thanks to DTE Energy’s overreliance on fossil fuels.

The survey asks residents about bill costs and general efficiency of their home; it expands to ask if people have to make tough choices about which bills to pay, and whether assistance — if it’s available — does much to ease the burden. Bridget Vial, Energy Democracy organizer with MEJC, is coordinating the interviews. “We hear from people who use breathing machines, or have medications that need refrigeration,” Vial says. “It makes loss of energy a life-or-death situation, no matter the temperature outside. And many people who don’t qualify for assistance, or can’t get enough, are using ovens or chimneys to heat their homes. It highlights the critical importance of access to affordable energy for health.”

The group sought input and advice from We the People-Michigan organizer Kalvin Hartwig, Sault Tribe member living and working in the Upper Peninsula. He says, “We the People of Michigan believe that whether you are Black, Native, working class, all people should have affordable energy. In the UP people are paying something like $1200 a month for heating– the highest energy rates in the continental US — because a hedge fund in England owns the utility company. Heating your home in the UP is not a choice in the winter but some people keep thermostat at 55 just to stay alive.”

Kate Hutchens is the lead researcher on the project, and a part of the Urban Energy Justice Lab. “The work builds on the scholarship of Dr. Tony Reames, who is the advisor on the project. His work has demonstrated that race is a factor in proportion of cost of energy in SE Michigan, and also skewed racially in access to efficiency programs for their homes. I hope this new research will add to the body of literature arguing that to create a safe and healthy home, energy must be affordable.” The primary research questions are:

  • How does energy burden (high costs), and unreliable energy access (shutoffs and power outages), impact families’ wellbeing?
  • What makes communities resilient to energy burden?

Research partners hope to present this information to the Michigan Public Service Commission in charge of rates for the utilities. “Over the last two decades, industry rates have basically stayed level for corporations, industry and manufacturing, while residential rates have skyrocketed. Everyday working people are basically subsidizing Michigan manufacturing. It’s not fair to families who are struggling to put food on the table when they are taking in billion dollar profits,” says Vial.

Research results are expected to be complete in Summer 2021. 

Research partners: Work for Me, DTE!, We Want Green Too, MI Environmental Justice Coalition

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