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Consumers Energy chief sees solar future in Michigan

About this story

This story is part of a multi-newsroom collaborative project called Middle America's Low-Hanging Carbon: The Search for Greenhouse Gas Cuts from the Grid, Agriculture and Transportation. The effort, led by the nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, includes 14 Midwest newsrooms and aims to give readers local and regional perspectives on climate change. For more, click here.

JACKSON — Patti Poppe likes to joke about the bumper sticker she once stuck on her Chevy Volt electric hybrid car: “I ♥ coal.”

These days, the sticker sits in Poppe’s office at Consumers Energy’s headquarters in her hometown of Jackson. It’s a symbol of her personal evolution on climate change — and the transformation she’s leading at Michigan’s largest natural gas and power provider.

Poppe is the CEO of Consumers Energy’s and its corporate umbrella CMS Energy. The company serves natural gas and/or electricity to 6.7 million residents across Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and it’s rapidly weaning itself from fossil fuels in favor of cheaper, renewable power that doesn’t spew heat-trapping gasses linked to climate change.

Similar trends are playing out across the country as coal-fired power plants become too expensive to operate and climate concerns grow. But Consumers’ carbon-cutting ambition stands out.

Consumers plans to gradually replace its retiring power plants solely with renewable resources and tools to lower energy demand, opting against building a natural gas plant that Poppe said would “saddle the people of Michigan” with unnecessary costs.

“We can modularly add renewable resources as we need them that can match supply and demand,” Poppe told Bridge last month. “You can turn around a solar farm very quickly. It's the most flexible and adaptable resource.”

June 4, 2019: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opens up more Michigan farmland to solar power

Consumers still generates more than 30 percent of its electricity from coal, but it’s shuttered seven plants since 2016 and vows to close the remaining five by 2040 — part of its plan to slash carbon dioxide emissions 90 percent by that date.

Banking heavily on new solar power, the company aims by 2040 to generate 43 percent of its electricity from renewables. Existing natural gas plants in Zeeland and Jackson — along with a pumped storage hydroelectric plant it shares with DTE along Lake Michigan’s shores in Ludington — should provide Consumers enough baseload power to steady the grid as it scatters more renewable energy, Poppe said.

Meanwhile, the utility aims to lower energy use through efficiency upgrades and “demand response”— paying customers to power down during peak demand.

“The potential on demand side could fundamentally change the total cost structure of the energy system,” Poppe said.

A different approach

DTE, which delivers power to 2.2 million customers in Southeast Michigan, is also ditching coal, touting a pledge to cut emissions 80 percent by 2040.  

(Both Consumers and DTE use 2005 as benchmarks for their target.)

DTE plans to add more wind power in the next few years before it significantly ramps up solar. But it’s also leaning on power from natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal but still emits carbon dioxide.

Specifically: a $1 billion natural gas plant in St. Clair County. The Public Service Commission approved the plant last year over objections from renewable energy advocates.

DTE CEO Gerry Anderson, who calls climate change “the defining issue of our era,” said building more natural gas power is the only way to keep the lights on while three coal plants retire — and a key reason they’re shuttering earlier than expected, he said.

Ben Inskeep, a research analyst for EQ Research, a North Carolina-based renewable energy consulting firm, said the contrasting approaches from Michigan’s big utilities highlight a nationwide split.

“Some utilities are going from coal plants to building a natural [gas] plant, whereas other utilities are leapfrogging natural gas and going directly from coal to renewables,” he said.

Coal power dims in Michigan

Coal once dominated Michigan, but now it’s fading fast. Since 2010, Michigan utilities have retired at least 26 coal generators at 15 power plants, while 17 generators at six plants are set to retire by 2025. Three other old coal plants converted to burning natural gas. This map shows that changing energy landscape. Click on the coal plant icons for details.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Agency data, public announcements and media reports.

Anderson said comparing the plans of DTE and Consumers amounted to apples and oranges, in part because DTE generates more of its own power than Consumers, which relies more on outside contracts.

“Every company has its own starting point. Everybody’s path is different,” he told Bridge.

But in analyzing each company’s long-term plans, Inskeep noticed another key difference: DTE projected solar power costs would decline at a much slower rate than many experts do.

The company relied on historic costs of solar that “fly in the face of trends we’ve been seeing now for well over a decade,” Inskeep said.

“The results certainly could have shown that there were cheaper and cleaner alternatives to building a new natural gas plant.”

Doing the homework

Sliding into corporate lingo, Poppe frequently references a “triple bottom line” guiding her company’s decisions: to benefit people, the planet and the state’s prosperity.

But Poppe said she and her colleagues didn’t always acknowledge how greenhouse gas emissions — much of them from the power sector — were warming the earth putting much of the planet in peril.

For years, Poppe said, she didn’t do her homework on climate change.

“I was willing to just take that sound bite — that there was correlation [between greenhouse gas emissions and warming temperatures] but inadequate data to support causation.”

But leading to Consumers’ 2016 decision to start closing coal plants, Poppe said, the company brought in experts to help executives probe the scientific consensus on climate change.

The company was already asking whether propping up coal plants was a poor economic move, Poppe said, and understanding climate science prompted executives to think more ambitiously about renewable energy.

“We connected the dots. We could do what was right and be more aggressive than we had been before,” Poppe said. “Because the economics and the planet benefits were aligned.”

Last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — comprised of the world’s top scientists — said the world must reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 to limit man-made warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Without dramatic decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, severe drought and coastal flooding could displace millions of people in low-lying areas, disrupt global food supplies and destabilize some governments, the report warned.

Climate change could bring tourism to a warming but still-mild Michigan, but it could also mean more flooding, toxic algae, challenges for farmers, species extinctions and public health risks, experts say.

Could Michigan reach experts’ target of net zero emissions by 2050?

“I would definitely not rule it out,” Poppe said, noting it would require major breakthroughs in energy storage to complement intermittent renewable power.

“If you don't stand for it, it won't happen.”

Editor’s Note: Both the Consumers Energy Foundation and DTE Energy Foundation are donors to The Center for Michigan, the parent organization of Bridge Magazine. Their contributions did not influence the reporting or direction of this article. A full list of funders is available here.

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