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FTC petition: Utility industry, including DTE, Consumers, is unfairly fighting rooftop solar

Workers install solar panels on a roof
Alex Snyder
Wayne National Forest/Wikimedia Commons

A coalition of environmental and public interest groups has asked the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation of the U.S. electric utilty industry.

The group's petition says the industry is engaging in unfair competitive, unfair business, and consumer harming practices.

Those practices, the petition alleges, include unfair competitive actions that harm clean energy competitors, including consumers wishing to install rooftop solar panels. The petition says utilities are also engaging in, "unfair and deceptive acts, including corrupt dealings and voting interference that drives up consumer electricity rates."

Two hundred thirty-five groups signed the petition, including Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, MI Air MI Health, and Environment Michigan.

The petition mentions Consumers Energy and DTE Energy as among the many utilities across the country engaging in the alleged unfair practices.

In 2019, Consumers Energy contributed $43.5 million over a period of four years to a political lobbying group called Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy (CEME).

A Consumers Energy vice president sits on the board of CEME.

CEME then spent the money on television, radio, internet, and print issue advertisements that targeted certain lawmakers who supported pro-rooftop solar policies that the utility didn't like, including lifting a 1% cap on the number of people eligible for bill credits from excess energy produced by their solar panels.

Consumers Energy was rebuked by the Michigan Public Service Commission for the spending. The utility responded to the petition in a statement.

As a good corporate citizen, Consumers Energy is engaged in the political process, welcomes constructive dialogue and supports pragmatic policies that are focused on safe, reliable, and affordable energy for Michigan. Therefore, in the past, we supported organizations that provide education and advocacy related to such policies. Following a voluntary agreement in a 2019 electric rate case, Consumers Energy voluntarily agreed not to make political contributions and is therefore not currently contributing corporate dollars for these purposes. Any past contributions to Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy came from the company in the form of non-customer, shareholder dollars. In other words, funds driven from our shareholders – people buying stock – and not from customer bills. Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy (CEME) is a non-profit, independent organization and not a part of Consumers Energy.

The petition also says DTE Energy engaged in deceptive "goodwill" giving to charities in exchange for supporting its positions on rooftop solar and methane gas expansion.

The petition says DTE Energy gave money to churches and non profits that advocate for communities of color in exchange for their backing.

Those groups then supported DTE's proposal to slash rates for rooftop solar customers, and supported its proposed long term energy plan that relied significantly on burning methane gas to produce electricity.

The churches and other groups were organized under the name Michigan Energy Promise, which was linked to another lobbying group called Michigan Energy First.

DTE Energy’s Vice President of Government Affairs Renze Hoeksema is head of Michigan Energy First, and its treasurer is Theresa Uzenski, a manager of regulatory accounting at DTE Energy.

In response to the petition, DTE Energy sent a statement indicating it has interconnected thousands of rooftop solar installations and expanded access to solar and wind energy.

DTE also forwarded a statement from a utility trade group, Edison Electric Institute.

From the EEI statement:

"This filing is yet another disingenuous attempt by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Energy and Policy Institute to negate the clean energy progress that EEI’s member companies—America's investor-owned electric companies—have made and continue to make.

"As usual, their filing is full of baseless allegations. And, bizarrely, they seem to be requesting that the FTC unilaterally assert authority over the federal and state regulators that oversee the electric power industry. Doing so would upend decisions that have been made by federal and state regulators through open and transparent proceedings that are designed to ensure that customers are receiving affordable, reliable, and resilient clean energy.

"Asking the FTC to unilaterally restructure the electricity sector is an absurd and thinly veiled attempt to advance the financial interests of private rooftop solar companies, not the best interests of the customers that we proudly serve.” – EEI Spokesperson

The FTC did not respond to an email asking for details on the process by which it would determine whether an investigation is warranted.

Consumers Energy and DTE are both corporate sponsors of Michigan Radio.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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