In addition to shutting off residents, the utility also increased investor payouts.
DTE Energy cut electricity to tens of thousands of customers in Michigan during the pandemic despite receiving $220 million in federal funding from the CARES Act.
The utility is one of 16 in the U.S. that benefited from pandemic-related tax changes via the act, but still cut power to customers between February 2020 and June 2021, The Guardian newspaper reports. Some utilities also increased rates even as they took in public money.
The companies received enough funding to forgive customers’ overdue bills hundreds of times over, but instead, many provided executive bonuses and increased shareholder dividends. DTE bumped investor payouts from $714 million to nearly $800 million over the last two years, while its CEO received a $2.3 million pay increase in 2020, according to The Guardian.
Oliver Owens, a producer and entrepreneur in Detroit, was one of those impacted.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020 and music studios around Detroit closed, Oliver Owens, a producer and entrepreneur, saw his income dwindle and bills grow.
By late April, the single father of three faced $243 in electric debt, and DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest utility, cut power to his east side townhome, leaving him “stressed” and scrambling for assistance from family members and local non-profits.
“I kind of felt like I let myself down and my children at the same time,” the 42-year-old told the Guardian.
DTE suspended all non-payment shutoffs for low-income customers for three weeks at the start of the pandemic, then required they enroll in its Shutoff Protection Plan — which splits outstanding bills and incrementally adds them to future bills. Energy bill assistance typically came from the state, rather than the utility companies themselves.
In a statement to the American edition of the U.K. newspaper, DTE spokesperson Chris Lamphear underscored the company’s spending on assistance for low-income customers.
“Throughout the pandemic, DTE Energy has worked tirelessly to ensure its customers have the energy they need,” he said. “Nearly 120,000 of DTE’s customers are on affordable payment plans, which protect their service from interruption.”
The Citizens Utility Board of Michigan released a report in 2020 that ranked Michigan’s electric utilities in the lowest quartile of reliability. This included being among the worst in power restoration time and affordability.
In August, over 700,000 Michigan residents lost power due to severe storms. Some state representatives have criticized DTE and Consumer Energy’s ability to restore power and reimburse customers for damages associated with the outages.
Attorney General Dana Nessel called on DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to give customers affected by storm-related power outages automatic credits to assist those who lost hundreds of dollars in food and alternative housing costs. AG Nessel recommended a $100 automatic credit be distributed to affected customers. DTE provided $25 credits to those who experienced extended outages.