1st Friday Focus on the Environment: The search for more accountability in America's utility industry
ABOUT MATT KASPER:
Matt Kasper is the deputy director at the Energy and Policy Institute. Before joining the Energy and Policy Institute in 2014, Matt was a research assistant for the Energy and Environment Policy Team at the Center for American Progress where he worked on state and local policy issues. Matt was also a fellow for Organizing for America in Indiana, and he spent time working in Hartford, Connecticut for the state legislature. A native of Illinois, Matt graduated from Butler University in Indianapolis. He lives in Illinois.
ABOUT LISA WOZNIAK:
Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a Bachelors Degree and two ensuing Masters Degrees in Social Work and Education.
Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to the June edition of First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair, and today we're going to discuss movement to a more sustainable energy future and whether utilities, while improving, are putting up some barriers to getting there more quickly. My content partner in this First Friday conversation series is Lisa Wozniak. She is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And welcome back, Lisa.
Lisa Wozniak: Thanks. It's good to be here, Dave. Our guest today is Matt Kasper, and Matt is the deputy director at the Energy and Policy Institute. Before joining the Energy and Policy Institute in 2014, Matt was a research assistant for the Energy and Environment Policy Team at the Center for American Progress, where he worked on both state and local policy issues. He was also a fellow for the Organizing for Organizing for America in Indiana, and he spent time working in Hartford, Connecticut, for the state Legislature. Matt, thank you so much for joining us today.
Matt Kasper: Thanks for having me.
David Fair: Let me ask you, Matt. The Energy and Policy Institute is among some 233 groups, philanthropic organizations, and businesses that are petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to investigate, among others, DTE and Consumers Energy for unfair and deceptive acts, including corrupt dealings and voting interference that drives up consumer electricity rates. Now, that's a direct quote. That's a serious accusation. What have DTE and Consumers Energy done that warrants that here in Michigan?
Matt Kasper: Well, first, we're petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to commence an Article 60 investigation of the industry as a whole for further abusive practices that impede renewable energy competition and harm consumer protection. And folks in Michigan have been on the receiving end of this influential campaign that DTE and Consumers have been running with dark money entities. You know. 501 (c)4's. And, in recent years, they have been wanting to keep that 1% cap that is limiting the distributed energy, you know, in the service territories of DTE energy and Consumers Energy. And so, we're asking the FTC to include the Michigan utilities as part of their investigation, because, you know, the mission of the FTC, you know, it's pretty straightforward. You know, it wants to prevent business practices that are anti-competitive or deceptive or unfair to consumers. And so, we believe the FTC is uniquely positioned to conduct this investigation.
Lisa Wozniak: So, Matt, studies have shown that Michiganders are paying some of the highest rates in the Midwest while also dealing with the longest amount of time out of power in the Great Lakes region. Our high electricity rates were cited by Ford Motor Company when it decided to build new factories in the South, instead of doing so right here at home. What has led Michigan to being so bad?
Matt Kasper: Well, they have high rates because of many different issues. One, you know, you've had folks on your show talking about the outages and the need for the utilities to spend so much money on, you know, updating the grid. You know, we're also having utilities in Michigan continue to run on very old and expensive fossil fuel plants when they have been, you know, in front of the Michigan Public Service Commission. And interveners, consumer advocates, and environmental groups have all been pointing to the different pathways for the utilities to take and invest in energy efficiency, distributed energy, and other clean energy sources.
David Fair: I'm not sure everyone realizes DTE and Consumers are publicly regulated monopoly utilities, essentially for-profit companies that agree to be regulated in exchange for guaranteed profit year after year. It also means they have to bring proposals forward on rate increases in various investments to, what you referred to, the Michigan Public Service Commission. The state Legislature is also intended to be a watchdog. Where in all these well-intended checks and balances has the system broken down and failed in some people's minds?
Matt Kasper: And it's not just Michigan. The utilities really all over the country have massive political control. And that is because the dollars that they get to spend on these influential dark money campaigns, campaign contributions. But they're also some of the largest employers. So, they have massive influence when it comes to state policy. And so, we have seen in Michigan and many other parts of the country that it has broken down at various levels of the government. And I wouldn't even put the blame on a specific, you know, agency or part of the government. It's just that the utilities have gotten so massive and large with their political influence that they have done a great job of hiding the ball. They've been hiding the money and they're skirting the oversight that, you know, the folks at the Michigan Public Service Commission want and are working to put on utilities. And DTE and Consumers have done a great job of skirting that influence.
David Fair: 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment continues. Lisa Wozniak is here. She's executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And we're talking with Matt Kasper. He's deputy director of the Energy and Policy Institute.
Lisa Wozniak: For several years now, the lobbyists have kept bills bottled up that would dramatically expand rooftop solar installations, which you've mentioned, and allow for things like community solar. Like, there's a simple bill that would allow lower income neighborhoods or assisted living complexes or senior centers to install a solar garden or to provide their power. The reason that DTE and Consumers don't like these bills, well, some would say it's because it would give Michiganders the freedom to cut the cord from them. Is this what the Energy and Policy Institute and others are pointing out to as deceptive practices?
Matt Kasper: Yes. Yeah, that's exactly right. And we highlight in the petition for the FTC one specific example, and the Consumers Energy Front group called Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy. This entity has received over $40 million from Consumers Energy over the years. And last year, during the legislation debate on that bill you're referring to, this group ran a very misleading advertising campaign, and it claimed that, you know, the solar companies or, as the ads referred to them as the out-of-state special interests, that they were the ones that caused blackouts on the Texas electric grid in that winter storm in February 2021. And that's, of course, false. You know, the utilities and taxes all said it was gas shortages that affected their ability to operate in power plants. And they also went on to say, without evidence or explanation that Consumers Energy subscribers would harm the state's clean energy goals.
David Fair: Misinformation is now a regular part of our lives and trying to determine what is truth, what is fact, and what has been fictionalized to some degree is increasingly more difficult. It's pretty significant accusations that are being made in regards to how DTE and Consumers Energy are funding these dark programs. Is there evidence that what they say is untrue? Things that can be documented and proven?
Matt Kasper: Well, the advertisement campaign that this group ran was definitely untrue and absolutely false. And they have the links, the receipts that they have filed to the Michigan Public Service Commission, showing that the money that they gave to that group called Citizens for Energy in Michigan's Economy. That is pretty rare to see. So, that's why this petition to the FTC urges them to do this investigation and submit data requests to the utility corporations themselves. And the FTC is in this unique position to get answers for the public and the policymakers. And I wouldn't refer to the FTC orders almost as like subpoenas, because they're not. But they do carry the same weight. You know, they are obligatory. And if utilities refuse to answer, then the FTC can take them to federal court and try and get those answers for the public.
Lisa Wozniak: So, while the utilities are engaged in some of the activities that you're talking about, they're also investing more in renewable energy. And they're partnering with some communities to invest in solar arrays to help move away from coal and maybe someday natural gas. That's a longer horizon, for sure. But it's really clear--and you've pointed this out--that they want to maintain their monopolies and control the grid. And there are cities here in the state of Michigan, like the City of Ann Arbor, that are looking at creating nonprofit municipal utilities to serve their own communities. And this may be a wave. And so, I'm wondering what you think the response is going to be from the utilities as these kinds of opportunities become more apparent to cities all over the state and the country?
Matt Kasper: It's a great point. And we've seen this happen in other parts of the country where utilities have waged campaigns to prevent that from happening. They have worked with their trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, to help them in those campaigns. And it, you know, it takes us back to, you know, almost the late 1920s and thirties with this. There's actually the historical precedent here with the FTC. You know, utility companies were waging this campaign to prevent folks turning to public power. And those were competitors in the eyes of the investor-owned utilities at the time. And so, that FTC investigation in the twenties and thirties uncovered what the private electric utility holding companies were doing in that campaign. And the evidence that they compiled laid the groundwork for significant reform enacted under FDR. But they've since been repealed. So, it's a similar request to the FTC again. They compile the evidence and produce a report showing what the utilities are doing to prevent customers from choosing their own path when it comes to getting electricity.
David Fair: Obviously, politics plays a role in almost any kind of decision like this. So, in a midterm election year, what hopes do you have that the Federal Trade Commission will listen to this petition and start to take action?
Matt Kasper: We're very optimistic. The FTC now has all five commissioners, and they serve on quite lengthy terms. So, we believe that they are almost insulated from, you know, political interference or the changing of administration. So, again, that's why we think the FTC is, you know, uniquely positioned to conduct this investigation.
David Fair: Matt, thank you so much for the time today and sharing your insights.
Matt Kasper: Thanks again for having me.
David Fair: That is Matt Kasper, deputy director at the Energy and Policy Institute--our guest on First Friday Focus on the Environment. My content partner and co-host is Lisa Wozniak. She serves as executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Lisa, thank you. And I look forward to our visit in July.
Lisa Wozniak: It is always a pleasure. I look forward to our July conversation.
David Fair: For more information on today's First Friday topic and conversation, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.
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