Electric Companies: Unseen Pillars of the Community

May 7, 2020

By: Esther Heymans

What does your electric company do for your community? The most obvious answer is simple- they keep the lights on. However, under the surface, electric companies are much more involved in their communities. Electric companies exist to do more than just keep the lights on, they feel a responsibility to help the communities that they are powering.  During the pandemic, this support was more crucial than ever.

Katelyn Williams, Senior Manager of Political and External Affairs at EEI sat down with “The Current” to discuss this community engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Electric companies are providing very real community support,” Williams said. Electric companies have pledged financial support to food banks, donated PPE to essential workers, and assisted state and local governments in their efforts to slow the spread of the virus in their communities.

Some of Williams’ favorite community initiatives are the ones that helped students stay educated during this crisis. “Together our industry is making technology available for students who without additional support would not be able to participate in online classes,” she said. “In a few communities we’ve also seen companies step up to provide school lunch delivery services and WIFI hotspots for students who otherwise would not be able to continue their education.” These community engagement efforts are incredibly important to both EEI and their member companies.

One electric company, DTE Energy, shared a similar passion project for connecting students to the internet. Nancy Moody, Vice President of Public Affairs at DTE, joined to share DTE’s community engagement goals.

DTE has grown significantly, growth which has been shaped by a strong mission statement. “DTE has an aspiration to be the best operated energy company in North America and a force for growth and prosperity in the communities where we live and serve,” Moody stated. This renewed vision for community engagement came after the recession in 2008. That recession hit Michigan, the area DTE services, exceptionally hard. DTE was able to recover from the massive financial crisis without any layoffs, a remarkable feat. DTE’s president at the time, Gerry Anderson, had a vision to turn that level of determination to outside community engagement. DTE created a public affairs team specifically to house its community outreach programs

One of DTE’s current outreach programs focuses on the same area of community engagement as many other organizations: connectivity. The pandemic put pressure on many communities to have increased connectivity in a short amount of time. For many families, especially in Detroit, that level of connectivity simply isn’t feasible. “In Detroit, 90% of the students don’t have a digital electronic device and/or high-speed internet service,” explained Moody. In a society that went virtual overnight, 90% of students in Detroit could not get online from their homes. They were left behind. “We think Detroit is the least connected city in the country,” said Moody. DTE saw this crisis as a moment to practice what their aspirations preach.

They immediately jumped into the field and found the best type of digital electronic devices they could send out to families. DTE fundraised and found donors willing to pay for 6 months of high-speed internet connection to be built into every device they sent out. They also worked to find nonprofit organizations to assist with connecting families after those six months were up. Connecting these families allows them to empower themselves. “When you are not connected and you’ve never had this at your fingertips, you don’t understand the power it brings to you to improve your life,” Moody explained.

DTE does not accomplish this mission alone. “It takes everyone,” Moody said. To connect students, DTE partnered with the Detroit school district, businesses, and nonprofits. All those very different organizations came together with a common goal, a desire to help the communities around them.

Community engagement is important to any industry. Electric companies take that responsibility seriously. Standouts like DTE are blazing a trail for other electric companies to follow. During the pandemic many electric companies have been lifelines for their communities, but that hard work should not subside in its wake. In the months to come, community engagement by electric companies remains critical to promote the growth and prosperity that DTE beckons us towards.

Listen to episode 3 of “The Current” to learn more!

Episode 3: In this week’s episode, Brad talks with Nancy Moody, Vice President of Public Affairs at DTE Energy, to discuss DTE Energy’s partnership with Detroit public schools to bring internet and 51,000 laptops to students learning from home amid COVID-19 school closures.