Opinion | DTE’s plans for gas plant pose climate risk

Gail Philbin is director of the Sierra Club. Fred Miller is a retired attorney and activist with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

DTE is blowing smoke with promises of a clean energy future.

On March 29, DTE submitted its first Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), a long-term plan that utilities must prepare every five years and submit to the state. The day before, DTE trumpeted its plan in a news release devoted almost entirely to the company’s modest additional reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

But in its actual plan filed the next day with the Michigan Public Service Commission, DTE unveiled something quite different ‒ proposing to build  a second huge new greenhouse-gas polluting plant, in addition to the one currently under construction in St. Clair County.

Why build huge new plants dependent on greenhouse-gas producing fracked gas while at the same time acknowledging the urgent need to curb the climate crisis? What was DTE trying to hide when it left its big new fossil-fuel plans out of its public news release?

April 2018: Timing could be everything in Michigan fight over DTE natural gas plant​
April 2018: Michigan approves $1B DTE natural gas plant in blow to environmentalists​

As public concerns about the impact of climate change grow, DTE can’t claim to be a leader on climate while investing in gas pipelines and new gas-burning power plants. 

Its new gas plants will have a lifespan of 50 to 70 years. Although they produce fewer greenhouse gases at the power plant than coal plants do, their emissions are significant. Plus, gas leaks out of wells and pipelines along the route to the power plant -‒ releasing more potent and dangerous methane gas directly into the atmosphere every step of the way. 

Climate scientists say we need to move to zero greenhouse-gas emissions from all sources by 2050. Electricity production needs to go to zero long before that, since it is easier to make quick progress on electricity production than transportation and other industries, and successful efforts in transportation and industry will depend on low-cost, carbon-free electricity. 

Cars and trucks and most industries that directly use fossil fuels will have to go electric, and if that electricity is not carbon-free all the other efforts will be undercut.

Other electric utilities are moving more quickly toward the carbon-free future we need. In the next 11 years, Consumers Energy is pressing ahead with solar power nearly 10 times faster than DTE, and has promised to build no new fossil-fuel plants. Xcel Energy, which operates in part of the Upper Peninsula as well as seven other states, announced in December plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. By 2022, nearly 50 percent of Xcel’s electricity will come from renewables.

Consumers’ CEO Patti Poppe called big new gas plants like DTE’s “70-year assets” that involve “big bets” at risk of becoming “stranded assets” that have to close early at the expense of ratepayers. Why is DTE betting our money on a risky future?

Among DTE’s other business interests is DTE Midstream’s big ownership interest in fracked gas pipelines, including the expensive new Nexus pipeline project. DTE Energy’s gas plants may be there in part to feed the unregulated profits of DTE Midstream’s pipelines, skewing the public utility’s incentives and plans. DTE customers are at risk of being stuck with the result.

DTE customers need to speak out. The Michigan Public Service Commission must review and approve DTE’s Integrated Resource Plan. The overwhelming sentiment heard by MPSC commissioners at a public hearing on June 20 in Detroit was to send DTE’s plan back to the drawing board, to force one that truly recognizes the climate crisis, protects consumers and provides better service to underserved communities. 

You can still weigh in on the matter until Oct. 2. Comments can be emailed to the MPSC at mpscedockets@michigan.gov, referencing Case No. U-20471.

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Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:02am

Mankind depended on wind and solar for thousands of years, ( so is it of the future?). It was dropped in favor of combustion power in a mere 100. Why did this happen?

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:09am

It shouldn't take a power engineer with a PhD to point out how stupid and disineguous this question is, but here I am. Internal combustion became a primary energy source because it offered higher power levels than were achievable with renewable sources given the technology of the time. The difference being that now, we can achieve comparable power production using wind and solar. Do you ever plan to make a single good-faith argument, or are you content to suck on the metaphorical tail-pipe of the fossil fuel energy industry forever?

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 12:03pm

Calm down Bones, Actually I'm arguing that solar and wind are farcical power alternatives for a modern 24 hour 365 day economy needing PREDICTABLE, RELIABLE, CONSTANT and ECONOMICAL energy. WHICH IS why they were dropped so quickly in the modern economy. And both have their own big environmental downsides on top of being inadequate to the task. (Other than filling remote stock tanks and providing supplemental low voltage). You and I both I believe, both agree on the only realistic alternative, nuclear power. But the folks at the Sierra Club will never countenance it!

Lou Colombo
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 6:54pm

Nuclear and Solar are the only two feasible sources for clean energy........the history books will view our heavily subsidized wind power installations very negatively. You notice the left constantly screeches about renewables but never explains how.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 7:52am

Solar is at best a 50% solution (an unarguable fact.) so why bother with it at all? France gets 85% of its power from nukes so it can be done.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 8:55am

I worked at fermi nuclear plant during a change over,,, Very safe and very clean! The major problem is the waste!!!! What to do with it!!!

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 9:19am

They were dropped becaue the technology to make them competetive didn't exist until the late 80s. And it's very much possible to build an American power grid that runs entirely on renewables. A HVDC grid could integrate power generated anywhere in the US, with a footprint large enough to smooth environmental transience. But hey, why take it from the guy with a PhD in the field, listen to your own ignorant gut instincts

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 12:15pm

Evidently your Phd didn't cover the fact that wind is very seasonal and doesn't always blow or sun shines half the time?

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 10:05am

Matt, you need to shut up about things you don't understand. Building a nationwide HVDC means that wind and solar energy generated at any point in the continental US could be consumed at any other point. Thus, a local deficiency of sub or paucity of wind could be ridden through by the larger network. The research was in five years ago, you slavering windbag, so shut your mouth, and let the adults in the room start implementing solutions to the nightmare future your generation left us

Matthew Kleifgen
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:43am

Sun & Solar alone can't supply enough energy 24 hours a day to cover the base load that is need to supply the customers safely. Michigan power companies are already asking customer to turn up the A/C to 77 during peak demands. The city of New York issued an order to do the same over the buildings it controls. What about nuclear energy it is carbon free and it would cover the base load that is needed?

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:30am

Maybe the fact that they're from the Sierra Club who's objective is about a lot more than great backpacking ? This is really all about control. If you largely solve the energy problem and CO2 emissions, whether hydrocarbon energy independence or next generation nukes, that opportunity for exerting control over the economy is gone. As famous Democrat said never let a good crisis go to waste.

If solar and wind are insufficient to provide round the clock, predictable, constant, reliable power supply, why waste our time and capital on them at all - let alone their environmental downsides?

Michael R Muha
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 9:26am

Renewable energy should be the your priority! You already have one gas plant under construction, why do you need to build another when renewal technology is rapidly improving?

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:54pm

They are shutting down coal plants and replacing them with cleaner more efficient gas powered plants. With the energy demands at current level there is no way to cover it using only renewable resources.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 9:21am

Except that natural gas extraction releases an inordinate amount of methane that offsets the reduced green house emissions at the point of generation.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:41am

New gas plants may not be good, but consumption of electricity continues to increase including electric powered vehicles and systems. Solar and wind power has limitations including communities and private land owners not wanting alternative energy systems in their backyards plus hydro power that is becoming non existent resulting in addition power supplies needed. Maybe we need to focus on reduction of consumption as well as alternative electrical power generation.

Kathi Geukes
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:07am

DTE and Consumers Energy are both blowing smoke up Michiganders skirts....neither one is interested in actually saving the planet...only in racking up enormous profits....when a group of us decided to sign up for a different provider....we were told we got put on a "list"...well, it's been 6 years and I'm still on the "list".....it's hard to fight corporate energy companies, especially when you live in their "district"......I could move, but then again they could let me get my electricity from a co-op...which they won't let me do....I would put a windmill on my property...but the township said no. So the waiting continues...sigh

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 2:43pm

It may be a shock to you but no, saving the planet, caring for their employees, "stake holders" or the "children" are not any company's first priority. Yes as with all businesses it is our our self benefit or making a profit we're most all after. So if you want to make the strongest statement to DTE or CMS, like the 15,000 Amish folks in Michigan, you can cut the cord and set up your own solar power sources. The Amish seem to be able to live very happily by their convictions, if you really believe what you claim, I'm sure you can too even if it requires moving.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 1:53pm

Wind and solar may not be sufficiently reliable, especially in parts of the US that are more cloudy and may not have constant winds. So under those conditions, even with using what "storage" system that can be built, there could be "brown outs" and loss of electric surface.

Rich Studley
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 3:28pm

Michigan and California (where the national Sierra Club headquarters is located) are very different states. DTE and Consumers Energy are both investor-owned electric utilities, but very different companies. DTE and Consumers each have a different set of customers to serve and a different mix of energy facilities to meet their customers needs. The state energy law that requires electric utilities to prepare and submit Integrated Resource Plans for review by the MPSC is intended to encourage strategic planning and recognizes that each company has different opportunities and challenges. The IRP process was never intended to impose the same one size fits all business model or operating plan on every utility company. The IRP process is also not intended to give environmental activists another bite at the apple for policy arguments they lost or didn't make during the energy debate. The Sierra Club opposes nuclear power and wants to ban fracking. Michigan's energy law allows both. Alternative energy can and should be an important part of Michigan's future. However, state energy law also allows utility companies the option of using clean, reliable and affordable natural gas that can be produced and stored in Michigan. To answer the Sierra Club's question: "Why build a new gas-powered plant when renewables are the future?" Because in the real world, where Michiganders need reliable electricity to light our homes and power our workplaces, its not always windy or sunny.

Cindy M
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 7:05am

We have a tiny few (16) solar panels on our barn. Couldn’t be more pleased with results. Citizens who have been sold that gas and oil and nuclear are so much more efficient have been sold a bill of goods. Now on to geothermal furnace and electric car! Tax cuts and credits planned for dirty energy should be used for low interest rates for solar installation!

Greg Reed
Thu, 08/01/2019 - 9:25am

Like the authors, I ALSO think that we need more nuclear power plants.

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 5:56pm

One problem....there is NO MAN Made Climate Change. Show the data!

Al Warner
Sat, 08/03/2019 - 12:58am


I know, you don't believe it because it's "deep state fake news". But just for giggles and grins, I'll help you read the graph in the link. For 800,000 years (a very, very long time), CO2 did not exceed 280 ppm. When it drops by 100 ppm, the world is in an ice age and this happened several times. In just the last 50 - 70 years (a very short time), CO2 ppm increased by 135 ppm and damn, it's getting hotter and wetter. Oh, and a funny thing, the worlds population doubled in that same (short) time. Since China recently passed us in CO2 production, now we're in second place so I guess it's their problem now, not ours, right?

DTE's plans for a 50% reduction in CO2 by 2030 isn't enough! Replacing their fleet of antiquated/polluting fossil fuel fired power plants with natural gas combined cycle plants while quietly keeping Monroe's coal fired power going until 2040 is not the answer. Why is there no consideration of a second pumped storage facility like Ludington that is managed to store wind/solar over-production for short term compensation of their under-production.

I have put my money where my mouth is by installing grid tied solar panels that effectively provides CO2 free power for my home and battery electric vehicle. Thanks to the tax incentives for the panels and car, I'm still saving money over the long haul despite the recent, arbitrary MPSC net metering tariff ruling. This isn't the solution for a lot of people, but everyone should do what they can: install more efficient furnace/air conditioners, insulate, buy Energy Star appliances, install LED's, turn in 2nd refrigerators, And yes, I'm a Sierra Club member but I've never back packed

Sun, 08/04/2019 - 6:26am

First. I expect utilities to provide clean low cost energy. Natural gas as a fuel is relatively clean and cheap. Second, electric transportation is not the future. Fuel cells are. Third. There is no scientific evidence that the rise in global temperatures is do to humans and than we can do anything to impact the rise. Lastly, I support the gas plant and nuclear. Renewables will come up short

Gary Lea
Sun, 08/04/2019 - 9:03am

To Mark. In 1982, Exxon Mobil accurately predicted today's atmospheric CO2 and global temperature increase and knew what that would bring about: https://earther.gizmodo.com/exxon-predicted-2019-s-ominous-co2-milestone...
Do not deny NASA's (an independent agency of the United States federal government - no allegiance to any political party) or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's factual evidence: https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
Now it's your turn; show the data proving the veracity of your claim.

Doug L
Sun, 08/04/2019 - 10:18am

I hope that others have written to the MPSC to express their concerns and are not just spouting off here. This is the text of the letter I sent. "Hello. I am writing to express my objection to any new gas fired electric generating plants. According to some studies, when the leakage in the supply pipelines taking gas to the power plant is considered, these plants are no more environmentally friendly than coal fired plants. I also am concerned about the effect of adding huge gas consumers. It became clear last winter, when there was fire damage at a natural gas pumping station, that the Michigan natural gas supply network is operating near capacity. At that time the Governor asked us all to turn down the heat so there would be enough gas to go around. Where would we have been if we were counting on natural gas to supply our electricity as well as our heat? Cold and dark, that is where!
To sum it up, I oppose natural gas fired plants because they are not environmentally friendly, and because our gas supply network does not have the capacity to supply these plants. "

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 9:50am

I'm in Consumer's territory. Yes they are going faster towards more solar than DTE is. But right now about 12% of their capacity comes from solar and wind.
What the article fails to mention is that the other 88% has to come from somewhere and the best current way is natural gas. Getting the 88% of capacity from fossil fuels down to 0% will take many decades. Plus the utilities are currently mandated to have back-up capacity to wind and solar - which again the best way is natural gas.
So there are 2, and sometimes more, sides to every discussion. So it would have been good for the article to have included the long range (up to 30 or more years) scenario.