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Thursday, June 4, 2015

DTE's rate structure and lack of accountability is harming Michigan communities; The solution? Off the grid LED lighting!

DTE's rate structure and lack of accountability is harming Michigan communities
The solution? Off the grid LED lighting!

By Jackson Koeppel

In 2011, the City of Highland Park, MI, home to the world’s first automated assembly line, first mile of paved road, and first depressed urban freeway, lost over 1000 city streetlights to repossession by DTE Energy. The city had been unable to pay a $65,000 per month energy bill for some time and racked up $4 million in municipal electric debt. Amidst already staggering poverty and collapsing infrastructure, residents of this majority black city in the center of Detroit had to sit and watch their streetlights be removed and carted off. Go to youtube and search ‘Highland Park in the Dark: DTE Removes Streetlights’ if you don’t believe me.

In response, I helped to form Soulardarity, a community organization formed around the installation of community-owned off-grid solar streetlights. Since 2012 we have installed two pilot projects and inspired the city and county to collaborate on an off-grid solar lighting project for the Ernest T. Ford Recreation center. Soulardarity is currently in the process of forming into a membership organization that will pursue off-grid solar street lighting, energy efficiency, and community education and organizing to build a democratic and equitable energy system.

Recently, Highland Park invested in high-efficiency LEDs for some of their remaining lights,
along with many other municipalities in southeast Michigan. DTE publicly encouraged this
investment. The city of Ypsilanti, for instance, spent $500,000 converting their streetlights to
LEDs on a promise of saving at least $120,000 annually. Now, DTE has put forward a rate case that would raise the operating rates of LED lighting, while lowering the operating rates of sodium bulbs, significantly diminishing the payback for cities which invested in upgrading their lighting. Twenty-four municipalities are intervening in this rate case for lack of any good reason that LED lighting should be so much more expensive to maintain.

It is almost convenient that Highland Park was so brutally wracked by the repossession - at least the con didn’t cost us as much. Starting from scratch, it is actually more affordable to install off-grid solar-powered lighting than lighting tied to the rising cost of fossil fuels and the desperation of an obsolete monopoly. It indicates to me that cities everywhere should be paying attention to places like Highland Park, where the devastation wreaked by an economy designed for gambling addicts is most acute, and where the transformation to a new one is actually possible.

At a DTE shareholder meeting last week, I asked Gerald Anderson, DTE’s board chairman, face-to-face, why this rate case is being advanced. He said, and this is almost word-for-word, that LED streetlights used such little energy that they need to raise fixed costs to pay for their infrastructure.

Let that sink in.

If your community reduces its energy use, DTE is going to raise rates to pay for their coal plants and nuclear plants, transmission lines, transformers - even though you’re using them less. The message is clear: DTE cares more about their investors than the communities they serve. They aren’t going to help us make an energy economy that works for our communities unless we demand it.

This is not the first, or the last, time that DTE will double-cross our communities. We know that they will fight tooth and nail against efforts to make our own energy . We know that they have money - but we have something better. This regional collaboration to intervene in the LED rate case could be the beginning of the transformation I’ve been having fever dreams and powerful conversations about. I hope it is, because I’m keenly aware that we are on a tight schedule to avoid catastrophic, old testament, seven plagues-style climate collapse. We’re already feeling it - last year, Highland Park got six inches of rain in 24 hours in an event that cost Michiganders over $1 billion. 

So Michigan, it’s time to get serious. Let’s work together to build a new energy economy like our lives depend on it - because they do.

Jackson Koeppel is Co-Director of Soulardarity, a community organization working on solar lighting and energy democracy in Highland Park, MI. You can learn more at www.soulardarity.com and reach him at 917 554 3741 or jackson.soulardarity@gmail.com

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