Issues of the Environment: Ann Arbor moving towards great energy equity and resilience
- A “historic” ice storm at the end of February knocked out power to over 65,000 customers in Washtenaw County. The DTE Energy outage map showed roughly 27,600 customers in the Ann Arbor area, with another 15,800 power losses in the Ypsilanti area.
- Ann Arbor officials are calling out the for-profit DTE and Consumers Energy utilities for delays in restoring power that in some cases stretched many days, as a form of energy injustice. Some residents were stuck in pricey hotels and lost medications or food while waiting for power to be returned, and council members say it disproportionately affected those already marginalized. Council MemberJen Eyer (D-4th Ward) says she doesn’t want to lose time while there’s interest in state-level regulatory reforms.
- Beyond the latest resolution, the recent weather has increased buzz about the potential for decentralizing power generation, and Ann Arbor leaders are in the midst of studying the possibility of creating a city-owned power utility.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair. And today, we're going to revisit the recent power outages that left a majority of Washtenaw County without electricity and take a look at what happens next. Some of what happens could determine the city's longer-term energy future. Our guest this morning is Ann Arbor City Council member Jen Eyer, and she represents the city's Fourth Ward. And thank you so much for making time for us today.
Jen Eyer: Thank you, David. I'm glad to be here.
David Fair: Well, when the ice storm and snowstorm that followed hit our area, did you personally lose power?
Jen Eyer: I did. I lost power for three days. We were, I would say, one of the lucky ones, though, to have our power restored before the weekend. It was bad, but not as bad as many other residents experienced.
David Fair: And assuming you could charge your phone, I'm betting you were inundated with calls and emails from constituents entirely unhappy with the response.
Jen Eyer: I was. There were two parts to that unhappiness and the frustration. One is the simple fact that folks lost power again, and this was a dramatic storm. And so, if it were an isolated event, I think that people may not have been so frustrated. But the fact is, in the last three years and really much longer, but especially the last three years, Ann Arborites have experienced multiple prolonged power outages. This coming on top of the previous two, where Ann Arborites endured multiday outages and received a lot of really bad information from DTE. It was those two issues coupled together that really made people very, very frustrated and reaching out to their city council members for help.
David Fair: There's another component that I was hearing from a lot of the public. DTE spokespeople have appeared now before legislative committees in Lansing, where they said much greater investment is needed to increase the reliability of the electric grid. Now, this is a for-profit entity that is making a good deal of money for its shareholders. Most people I know and most people that reached out to me are more than a little curious as to why more of that money isn't already being applied to grid resilience. Has the city gotten any answers from DTE?
Jen Eyer: No, absolutely not. I mean, more than $1,000,000,000 in profits. And, at the same time, their documents that they show shareholders specifically cite prolonging and postponing investments in the grid. And that is something that we are asking the Public Services Commission to deny. It's beyond comprehension how they could be asking for rate increases while they're giving their shareholders $1,000,000,000 in profit and leaving us in literally in the dark, in the cold.
David Fair: We're talking with Ann Arbor City Council member Jen Eyer on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Well, on Monday night, City Council did postpone a resolution that would authorize the city administrator to engage the state Legislature and the Public Service Commission. What is that eventually going to look like?
Jen Eyer: So, several council members right after the ice storm quickly worked with city staff to put together a really detailed and thorough resolution calling on the Legislature and the Public Service Commission to take a series of actions to improve the reliability of our electricity. The resolution was introduced two meetings ago and then was referred to our Energy Commission, which is filled with people who have a lot of great knowledge and expertise on energy issues. And so, they worked on it very quickly, put some additional thoughts and requests in it, and sent it back to council. But, during that process, there wasn't enough time for our legal department to review it, so we just postponed it for one more meeting to give our legal department that opportunity to look through and make sure that there's nothing problematic in there. It is a very meaty resolution. You know, I've been on council for a couple of years. I've been following city government for 20 years here. And this is an unusually meaty and thorough resolution that's coming forward with a series of actions that we're calling on the Michigan Legislature and the Public Service Commission to take, as well as directing the city administrator to continue working on the city's resilience and equity infrastructure.
David Fair: Well, Ann Arbor's contract with DTE Gas is set to expire in 2027, and Council on Monday night did pass a resolution to begin negotiations with DTE and other utilities that could potentially be interested in helping the city transition away from gas and into more renewable energy. Do you have a projection for what that outcome might look like?
Jen Eyer: We are just at the very beginning stages of this. We believe that no person should have to sacrifice their health and safety or the well-being of their local community to heat their home in their business. And so, that is why we're committed to transitioning to cleaner energy sources that significantly reduce dangerous pollution, while also improving the reliability, the resilience, the safety, and the affordability of the city's energy. And one of the reasons that I am so supportive of moving this forward is we shouldn't have to sacrifice our health to heat our homes and businesses. And studies show that pollution from fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, cause cancer. The pollution also causes heart and lung and serious respiratory diseases, including increased rates of childhood asthma. And so, transitioning to cleaner energy sources would significantly reduce this dangerous pollution in our homes. It's important to know that what we do in Ann Arbor, it'll help us serve as a model for communities across the country in how to transition to clean, renewable energy.
David Fair: You are listening to WEMU's Issues of the Environment, and we're talking sustainability and the energy future with Ann Arbor City Council member Jen Eyer. Now there is some growing sentiment in the city that Ann Arbor and its environmental and sustainability goals will be better served by creating a municipally-owned utility and moving away from DTE and Consumers Energy. The city has launched a feasibility study to determine the viability of that idea. Where are we in that process at the moment?
Jen Eyer: Right. So, it's important to note that there are two separate tracks here. There's one track for the electricity and that side of it. And then there's another track for our heating and how we heat our homes on the electric side. We are already taking steps to set up what is called a sustainable electric utility, which is a separate entity that will allow us to power homes through a series of microgrids. This is something that we can do legally right now. We don't need to negotiate with DTE. This is a separate utility that is publicly owned that we can set up now and begin setting up the infrastructure powered by solar mostly and connecting homes through a series of microgrids that will be resilient in storms like what we just saw.
David Fair: What avenue of financing would the city look at to make sure that it's even possible?
Jen Eyer: Well, it is possible because what we're talking about is a microgrid that never touches DTE's network. We don't have to negotiate with DTE on this. As far as the financing goes, we are pursuing a federal grant, you know, to give us the funding that we need to launch the FCU and to create those microgrids in three separate areas of the city just to get it started. We also have our climate action millage, which voters overwhelmingly approved last November. And we know that Ann Arbor voters--that Ann Arbor residents--are demanding clean, renewable energy that aligns with our community's goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 under our ambitious and innovative A2Zero plan.
David Fair: As you look forward to getting to that 2030 place, how do you envision the City of Ann Arbor running as opposed to how it runs now?
Jen Eyer: I think we are going to see a very careful transition. The things that we're talking about do sound transformational, and they are. But it's important that we take the steps carefully and that we think about how it impacts all levels of our city, from homeowners to businesses and all economic levels of our residents.
David Fair: Equity is at the heart of it, isn't it?
Jen Eyer: Equity is at the heart of everything we are doing here because we know that, historically, disadvantaged communities are the ones who have suffered most environmentally, you know, with environmental pollution, the injustice of where they are situated, and where we situate polluting entities in our community. So, we really are making sure that folks at the lower end of our economic scale in Ann Arbor are not being left behind. Yeah, I mean, I guess I would just say that, you know, moving to the cleaner energy sources is going to help reduce our community's contribution to the devastating effects of climate change. And that's the second part of this that's really driving me. Ann Arbor has always been a leader and an innovator in our state, and our approach to energy and reducing dangerous pollution is no different. We are working on, again, a very careful transition because these things just can't happen overnight, right? We have to think about all the impacts along the way.
David Fair: Well, there is so much headed our way in these changing times. And I look forward to our next conversation. But thank you so much for making time for us today.
Jen Eyer: Thank you.
David Fair: That is Ann Arbor Fourth Ward City Council Representative Jen Eyer. She's been our guest on this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. For more information on today's topic, all you have to do is visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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