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DTE Energy vows ‘net zero’ on carbon emissions for electric business by 2050

DTE Energy sign

DTE Energy on Thursday announced plans to slash carbon dioxide emissions in its electric company to “net zero” by 2050 — an updated goal aimed at addressing the earth’s rapid warming from greenhouse gases.

DTE Electric Co., the state’s biggest electric provider, serves 2.2 million customers in southeast Michigan. It had already set goals to cut emissions 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040 — in part by shutting coal plants in the coming years.

The utility would not necessarily stop emitting carbon dioxide altogether. Reaching “net zero” might include offsetting emissions elsewhere — whether by replenishing forests or sucking carbon from the air in other ways. Reaching the goal would require advances in technologies that are not yet viable on a large scale, said Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer for DTE Electric. Those include carbon capture and sequestration and energy storage in batteries. 

Lauer said DTE wants utilities nationwide to pursue similar goals, in hopes that the federal government will speed research in clean energy technology and set policies to make them economically viable — such as by putting a price on carbon emissions.

“There's been a barrier in the last 20 years with the federal government,” Lauer said. “What all of us need to do is expect our federal government to lay out a path forward, that helps us with climate change.”

The move follows President Trump’s vow to the leave the Paris Climate Agreement, a global pact to fight climate change, and the engineering of a dramatic rollback of environmental regulations across the federal government.  

The goal also comes as the Michigan Public Service Commission scrutinizes DTE’s “Integrated Resource Plan” — a long-term vision utilities must file every five years. Some consumer and environmental advocates allege the plan keeps coal plants running too long and leans too heavily on natural gas while underestimating the value of solar power. 

DTE’s net zero goal drew praise from some lawmakers and advocates for action on climate action, while other environmental groups levied skepticism about how DTE would reach the target without changing the plan proposed to the Public Service Commission. 

DTE previously announced plans to close three coal plants by 2022 and replace the lost coal generation with at least one new natural gas facility: a $1 billion plant in St. Clair County. DTE would retire its Belle River coal plant by 2030 and run its Monroe coal plant until 2040. DTE has also said it plans to add more wind power in the next few years and bolster energy efficiency programs before significantly ramping up solar.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Democrat, applauded DTE’s announcement. So did the Republican chairs of Michigan’s House and Senate energy committees. 

"As a major employer in our districts, we have seen DTE fulfill its commitments over the years to provide safe, affordable and reliable power and be a positive local presence in our communities,” Sen. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, and Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, said in a joint statement circulated by DTE.

“We applaud DTE's new goal as it sets a ‘true north’ course for Michigan without sacrificing their focus on affordability and reliability."

Bob Perciasepe, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said DTE was “pushing the envelope” with the “ambitious” plan. 

The goal would not apply to DTE Gas Co., which delivers natural gas to industrial and residential customers over 2,118 miles of transmission pipelines.

Critics of DTE’s long-term plan say they are skeptical and want more details. 

Charlotte Jameson, energy policy and legislative affairs director for the Michigan Environmental Council, called the idea of a net zero goal a positive, but added: “We have a lot of concerns with an approach to hit this goal that continues to rely heavily on natural gas.” 

Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, called DTE’s goal “a step in the right direction,” but added in a statement: “Their track record on investing in clean, renewable energy ⁠— and the company’s recent flawed, long-range energy plan ⁠— leave us feeling skeptical.” 

DTE’s critics point to plans by the state’s other large electric utility — Consumers Energy — to reach its goal of cutting carbon emissions 90 percent by 2040 without building a natural gas plant. Patti Poppe, CEO of Consumers Energy, said investing in a new plant would “saddle the people of Michigan” with unnecessary costs. 

But DTE executives say investing in natural gas generation is the only way to keep the lights on and rates affordable, and they suggest comparing DTE to Consumers is like apples and oranges. That’s partly because DTE generates more of its own power than Consumers, which relies more on outside contracts.

“Everybody should be really proud that they have two utilities in the state that are moving very aggressively on renewable energy,” said Lauer, the DTE Electric president. 

Experts have been warning of dire consequences unless the world rapidly weans itself fossil fuels, which spew heat-trapping gasses speeding climate change.

Last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — comprising the world’s top scientists — said the world must reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to limit manmade 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 some tourism to a warming but still relatively mild Michigan, but it could also mean more flooding, toxic algae, challenges for farmers, species extinctions and public health risks, experts say.

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