Following the storms on July 8, Highland Park resident Michelle Jones had to leave her house on account of an outage that lasted for 36 hours. This was the second time she had lost power in two months, after a June storm knocked out her service for ten hours.
But this time the outage came in the middle of a heatwave when temperatures were hitting the mid-90s. “It was just miserable,” Jones says. “I went to my other daughter’s house because you could not sleep, you could hardly breathe.”
Jones also relocated some of the food from her freezer, saying that she had stocked up during the COVID-19 pandemic and had about $150 to $200 worth of groceries in her freezer. Jones already pays more than $300 a month for power and didn’t want to have to replace all that food as well.
Other neighbors have even more serious problems. “This is an older community,” Jones says of her neighborhood. “We have people with major health issues that need to know their power is on. Some are on oxygen, others—if you’re a diabetic—you need to keep your insulin at a particular temperature. Things like that are big issues.”
Jones joined other Highland Park residents, activists, and elected officials for an online press conference on July 10, where Rep. Rashida Tlaib referred to the outages in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park and the high cost of service as, “systemic racism at its core.”
“Look at the maps after this particular storm,” Tlaib said. “Outages were widespread throughout Detroit and other black and brown communities and to me and to many others this is not an accident.”
But a lack of data makes it hard to verify Tlaib’s statement. “Utilities aren’t required under Michigan law or MPSC statute to file outage information by locality,” says Matt Helms from the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates electric utilities.
Advocates for affordable energy, including the Work For Me DTE campaign and community-owned solar nonprofit Soulardarity, say that the high number of fatalities from downed power lines in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park relative to other areas is evidence of the system’s problems.
A Michigan Public Service Commission analysis of fatalities from downed wires and other causes during a May 4, 2018 windstorm across eastern Michigan showed that 8 fatalities occurred within the utility’s older 4.8 kV system in the city of Detroit, and approximately five deaths in that system occurred outside of the city. For the remainder of the system (which is 8.3 kV and 13.2 kv), there were only two deaths.
At the national level, research supports Tlaib’s point that minorities on average pay more for power, with the largest gaps experienced by the poorest households.
The COVID-19 pandemic is compounding problems for those experiencing outages and high utility bills. People are spending more time at home and potentially using more power. These outages mean lost productivity at work and an interruption of online learning for children. And residents of low-income areas may take a bigger hit from outages than others. “The expenses of losing groceries are worse right now because a lot of folks are still out of work,” says Bridget Vial, an organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. . “And people are buying groceries to last a long time.”
DTE customers may currently apply for a $25 credit to offset the damages from some types of power outages. In other words, the utility would pay to replace about one-seventh of the groceries in Jones’ freezer.
Residents of Detroit and Highland Park might also be more at risk when it comes to dealing with a power outage in the middle of a heatwave. A study from 2019 showed that Detroiters were especially vulnerable to global warming, with only Miami being forecast to have more deaths as average temperatures rise. Researchers believe this may have to do with both cities’ aging populations. Urban heat islands—where the combined presence of asphalt and rooftops raise the temperature in cities relative to surrounding areas—can make heatwaves deadlier, especially if residents lose their ability to keep cool with fans and air conditioners. Both storms, which DTE says cause most outages by knocking out trees and powerlines, and heatwaves are forecast to become more severe with climate change.
For their part, DTE Energy disputes that the predominantly African American and minority communities in and around Detroit are hit especially hard or that they’ve failed to invest in upgrades in these areas. “The frequency of outages in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck is significantly lower than the rest of the service territory,” the utility said in a statement released to the Detroit Free Press.
While not possible to verify with publicly available information, it may not mean very much even if the claim is true. Reports like one in Crain’s Detroit Business from 2017 have said that Michiganders put up with the fourth highest number of blackouts of any state.
DTE also said that although Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park represent 14.1% of its customer base, it accounted for 19.1% of its investments in 2019. Work for Me DTE, however, questions how much of this investment is actually in the form of proactive improvements to the electric grid rather than simply repairing damage.
To offset the hardship that recent outages have posed and prevent future blackouts, Carlton Clyburn, Highland Park City Council President and Tlaib have submitted a list of demands that includes bringing the 4.8kv infrastructure “up to modern standards without further cost increase” and looking more critically at DTE’s priority of investing in high-voltage transmission over decentralizing the grid to make it more resilient.
In the short term, Vial says, perhaps the most important demands from that list are ones that help people like Michelle Jones with some of the immediate difficulties she’s experienced as a result of recent outages by “compensating customers fairly, automatically, and rapidly.”