Michigan Energy Promise, a new front group with strong ties to the Michigan monopoly utility, DTE Energy, recently began backing the utility’s arguments against rooftop solar power. The group’s appearance comes at a time when the Michigan Public Service Commission will soon decide how much solar customers are compensated for the excess power that they produce and send back to the grid.

Michigan Energy Promise logo

According to Midwest Energy News, Michigan Energy Promise is backing DTE Energy’s position on net metering and other issues before the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The group registered with the state on January 2, 2019, and created a Twitter account and Facebook profile a few weeks later.

On February 26, Bishop W.L. Starghill, Jr, a member of the new group and the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus, authored an opinion piece in Bridge Magazine attacking the solar industry with various utility industry talking points.

Michigan Energy Promise’s web pages state that it is a “project” of the Alliance For Michigan Power. Alliance For Michigan Power originated from a 501(c)(4) organization called Michigan Energy First. Michigan Energy First incorporated in December 2014 and filed documents less than a year later to register Alliance For Michigan Power.

The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs database shows that the assumed names for Michigan Energy First are also Alliance For Michigan Power and Michigan Energy Promise. In other words, all three organizations appear to be coordinated jointly as a single entity. According to its 990 tax forms, Michigan Energy First has received over $28 million in contributions since 2014. The group has not disclosed its donors, but it has close ties to DTE Energy.

Assumed Names from Michigan Energy First

Connections to DTE Energy

Renze Hoeksema
Renze Hoeksema

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

DTE Energy spokesperson Peter Ternes told Midwest Energy News that the utility is “part of the Alliance for Michigan Power coalition” and Hoeksema and Uzenski “serve in an advisory capacity” on the organizations’ boards “to provide information” about issues.

Latest Industry Tactic of Rallying Communities of Color to Frame Solar Debate

Michigan Energy Promise’s spokesman Ron Fournier told the Midwest Energy News that the group is a “wide and broad coalition including leaders in specific communities in Detroit that need the most help so they’re not easily preyed upon … Specifically African-American ministers who are tired of people coming into their community selling them services and contracts they don’t need.”

Ron Fournier is the former editor of Crain’s Detroit Business and former senior political columnist at the conservative National Journal magazine. He is now the President of the Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman.

The allies listed on Michigan Energy Promise are mostly churches, chambers of commerce, and nonprofits that advocate for communities of color. Many of the groups have either received money from the DTE Energy Foundation in recent years, list the utility as a corporate sponsor on organization websites, or a utility employee is a member of the board:

  • Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services has received $150,000 from the utility’s foundation from 2016 to 2017.
  • Detroit Association of Black Organizations received $112,500 since 2015.
  • Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development received $55,000 in 2016.
  • Church of God in Christ received $30,000 in 2015.
  • Urban League of Detroit and Southeast Michigan received $10,000 in 2015 and 2017.
  • Detroit Cristo Rey High School received $4,500 in 2016 and 2017.
  • Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce lists DTE Energy as a corporate partner.
  • Council of Asian Pacific Americans lists DTE Energy as a sponsor, and four members of its advisory board are DTE Energy employees.
  • Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s executive board includes DTE Energy’s Vice President of Legal and Chief Tax Officer JoAnn Chavez.

In 2012, the electric utility’s trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, began a campaign to rally organizations against rooftop solar. EEI funded organizations and then lobbied the groups to pass anti-rooftop solar resolutions, including the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Policy Alliance, and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. The groups all focused on the industry’s cost-shift argument, which is what Michigan Energy Promise also purports.

Multiple studies have shown that solar customers provide more benefits than costs to all electric customers, and a report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab offers the latest evidence that the utilities’ cost shift argument is, for the most part, a self-serving myth.

When EEI and its partners presented to the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington D.C. several years ago, the Huffington Post reported that the speakers pitched the members of Congress on the alleged cost-shift. A source told the outlet that there were some “pretty preposterous things being claimed there” and “it was just a lot of rhetoric, some of which was backed up by specifics, most of which was debatable.”

As noted by Midwest Energy News, other utilities have tried similar tactics to present rooftop solar as detrimental to communities of color. Duke Energy targeted African-American communities as part of its campaign against rooftop solar, according to critics. Rev. Nelson Johnson, a pastor of the predominantly African-American Faith Community Church and executive director of the Beloved Community Center, co-wrote a letter to Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good that said:

“I (Rev. Nelson Johnson) have been visited in recent months by three different individuals selling Duke’s “solar power hurts the poor” message. The claim is that the poor are left to subsidize more affluent customers who are able to buy rooftop solar power systems — because the non-solar customers are left to pay more than “their share” for Duke Energy’s large, expensive power plants.

It appears evident that this “solar hurts the poor” strategy has been coordinated by Duke and its cohorts in the corporate electric power industry and used in many states recently. Fortunately, the scheme has been rejected by the NAACP’s national board, by various state NAACP chapters, and by the Congressional Black Caucus, among others. Nevertheless, Duke Energy is vigorously pursuing this same deception in North Carolina. This cynical corporate activity is an affront to the people of this state, and it is your personal responsibility to stop it.”

ComEd also targeted African-American groups when it created a group called the Illinois Smart Solar Alliance. Just like Michigan Energy Promise, the Illinois Smart Solar Alliance included members of organizations that advocated for communities of color, some with funding or board ties to the utility.

Other groups representing communities of color have been critical of DTE’s track record.

Soulardarity advocates for energy democracy and clean energy in Highland Park, Michigan. Executive Director Jackson Koeppel told Midwest Energy News that DTE’s proposed rate increase in the same case that will decide the solar compensation rate would disproportionately raise rates for low-income customers.

“What they’ve put forward in the rate case is really egregious,” Koeppel said. “With the formation of this new front group and framing it so solar is fair to all customers is completely disingenuous.”

The national NAACP meanwhile has urged its chapters to advocate for strong rooftop solar policies, including net metering, as part of its energy democracy agenda. The national organization has supported NAACP state leadership in Nevada, Indiana, Utah, Mississippi, Colorado, Missouri that have advocated for net metering policies.

A 2017 report from the NAACP, “Lights Out In The Cold,” criticized DTE Energy for its shutoff policy and its public relations campaigns to reposition the issue after 2010 shutoffs led to deadly house fires in Detroit. The report also criticized the utility’s charity The Heat and Warmth Fund:

“Not only do these programs protect only seniors from utility shutoffs during the winter, but they also place families into payment plans that essentially keep them in a state of permanent debt to the company. In many cases, families cannot afford to stay on track with the payment plans that are offered and end up having their power disconnected anyway.”

Similarities to the Consumers Energy-funded Citizens For Energizing Michigan’s Economy

Michigan Energy First is registered to long-time campaign-finance and election attorney Eric Doster. Doster also filed the documents to register Alliance for Michigan Power and Michigan Energy Promise.

Participants in Michigan politics and its energy debates are likely familiar with Doster, a former counsel to the Michigan Republican Party and author of a book on Michigan campaign finance law. Doster is also the registered agent for Citizens For Energizing Michigan’s Economy (CEME).

Doster’s firm, CEME, and the Michigan Energy First organizations also share the same address: 2145 Commons Parkway in Okemos.

CEME is also a 501(c)(4) and has been in the news for the past several months.

The Energy and Policy Institute revealed that Consumers Energy contributed over $43 million to that entity since 2014. CEME used some of the Consumers Energy money to run radio, television, and print advertisements in primary and general election races to promote, unseat, or prevent specific candidates from winning this last election cycle. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, CEME spent an estimated $830,000 on TV ads in 2018 alone. CEME promoted candidates who ran against lawmakers that supported restoring old net metering rates or favored utility deregulation – energy policies that would create competition with the investor-owned utility companies.

Just like CEME, Alliance For Michigan Power also got involved in Michigan’s 2018 elections. In the Republican primary for the 24th Senate District, Alliance For Michigan Power sent mailers in support of Brett Roberts, who ran and lost against Representative Tom Barrett. Months earlier, Rep. Barrett had slammed the PSC for effectively ending net metering in the state:

“This short-sighted decision is beyond what the legislative directive was in the 2016 energy bill, which sought to ensure that rooftop solar users were covering their grid costs … This decision makes it harder for farmers to find solutions for their families and businesses. I am dedicated to working with the governor and legislative leaders to fix this decision.”

The Michigan Public Service Commission recently ruled in the Consumers Energy rate case that the utility is prohibited from contributing money, including its corporate dollars, to all IRS 501(c)(4) and IRS registered 527 political organizations for as long as the rates are in effect. (Consumers Energy has since said it will essentially ignore the PSC ruling by having its parent company, CMS Energy, contribute to political organizations.)

In August, Patrick Anderson, a tax policy expert and CEO of the Anderson Economic Group, filed a complaint against CEME to the IRS for violating campaign finance and federal tax laws. In his complaint, Anderson noted that CEME paid a proxy tax:

“The CEME organization is well aware that it behaves in a manner that involves prohibited activities for organizations that accept contributions that may be deducted as a trade or business expense. This is clear from their payment (as indicated in their Form 990, part XI, page 10) of a “proxy tax” of $1.51 million in 2016.”

In its 2016 IRS 990, Michigan Energy First reports paying a proxy tax of $1,650,706.

Photo credit: By Ikcerog at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Jay8g using CommonsHelper., Public Domain

Posted by Matt Kasper

Matt Kasper is the Research Director at the Energy & Policy Institute. He focuses on defending policies that further the development of clean energy sources. He also frequently focuses on the companies and their front groups that obstruct policy solutions to global warming. Before joining the Energy & Policy Institute, Matt was a research assistant at the Center for American Progress where he worked on various state and local policy issues, including renewable energy standards. His work has appeared in The Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other outlets.

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