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DTE wants to quit coal by 2035. Some in Michigan say that’s not fast enough

DTE energy
DTE energy wants state regulators to approve a plan that would get the company off coal by 2035. But environmentalists say that’s too slow. (Bridge file photo)
  • Shutting down coal plants by 2035 would reduce DTE’s carbon dioxide emissions by 85 percent
  • Clean energy advocates want a faster shutdown and no reliance on natural gas 
  • State regulators have 300 days to approve, deny, or request changes to the plan

DTE Energy wants to shut down its coal plants by 2035 and triple its renewable energy output over the next two decades, making it the latest major Michigan utility to plan a major shift from fossil fuels.

Shutting its Belle River and Monroe coal plants, which provide a combined 40 percent of DTE’s energy mix, would result in an 85 percent reduction in the company’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2035, putting the utility closer to its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

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In a statement, company CEO Jerry Norcia said the commitments, made in a draft 20-year plan the utility filed with state regulators Thursday, will result in “a cleaner environment for Michigan families, communities and businesses.”

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The plan, covering DTE’s planned investments through 2042, calls for $9 billion invested over the next decade. In total, the company’s new solar and wind assets will be enough to power 4 million homes, Norcia said. 

But the electric utility plans to abandon coal in part by switching to gas, prompting criticism from environmentalists who say there is no room for new fossil fuel investments amid a worsening global climate crisis.

“Our modeling shows that in order for us to have a great shot of meeting our carbon reduction goals (to make Michigan carbon-neutral by 2050), we need to be off coal by 2030,” said Derrell Slaughter, a Michigan clean energy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We have a major opportunity here to get on track.”

The Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates Michigan’s investor-owned utilities, must now decide whether to approve the plan. It will soon open up a lengthy vetting process similar to a court case, with opportunities for outside parties to intervene in hopes of forcing changes to the final plan.

Commissioners have 300 days to approve, deny, or recommend changes to the plan, commission spokesperson Matt Helms said. 

DTE is the largest electric utility in the state, serving 2.3 million customers from the Ohio border to the Thumb. Its draft plan calls for coal use to cease at St. Clair County’s Belle River plant by 2026, two years earlier than previously planned. Monroe, one of the nation’s largest coal plants, would be shut down in phases beginning in 2028 and ending by 2035 — five years earlier than previously scheduled.

Power from burning coal would be replaced with the following combination of renewables and natural gas:

  • Belle River would be repurposed into a natural gas “peaker” plant capable of quickly producing electricity during periods of high demand. That plant would go offline by 2040.
  • DTE would build out 800 new megawatts of solar and 240 megawatts of battery storage over the next five years, as part of a total investment of 15.4 gigawatts of renewables and 1,810 megawatts of storage. Batteries are considered a crucial complement to renewable energy, because they allow that energy to be stored for use when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing.
  • After Monroe’s phased retirement concludes in 2035, some of its energy could be replaced with a gas plant equipped with carbon capture and storage technology.

Clean energy advocates have called for a faster shutdown of Monroe, which is among the country’s highest-emitting power plants. 

The U.S. electrical power sector generates a quarter of the country’s emissions, making its energy transition essential to averting climate disaster.

Climate activists see private utilities’ energy transitions as particularly important given that both Michigan’s state government and world governments are not on track to meet their own carbon reduction targets.

An October report authored by Michigan-based clean energy consulting firm 5 Lakes Energy warned that Michigan will not achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 without more aggressive state climate policies. 

A United Nations report last month found that world governments are “nowhere near the scale and pace” of climate pledges they made in 2015.

By century’s end, global temperatures are on track to rise 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above temperatures seen before the industrial revolution. Warming of that magnitude would yield widespread global destruction, including worsening floods in Michigan and the likely disappearance of the state’s northern boreal forests.

Mike Berkowitz, who represents the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Michigan, said the group plans to “carefully scrutinize” whether Belle River can be replaced with renewables instead of gas.

A DTE summary stated that the company prefers to rely on “known, commercially available technologies” for the first 10 years, while remaining open to emerging technologies such as small nuclear reactors, hydrogen, battery storage and carbon capture and sequestration to backfill lost coal capacity during the second half of its 20-year planning period. 

For now, the company plans to offset the final 950 megawatts of coal capacity from Monroe with natural gas coupled with carbon capture technology. 

Some ratepayer advocates argue the company could be doing more to reduce customer energy use, eliminating the need to offset as much of its existing coal capacity.

DTE’s draft plan calls for the company to deliver customers 1.5 percent energy savings yearly through efficiency programs. It’s a step-down from a 2 percent requirement established in the utility’s most recent long-term plan. 

Slaughter, the clean-energy advocate, said he would like to see that target significantly boosted to down emissions and save customers money. 

Residential energy prices in Michigan are higher than the national average, about $117.57 per month compared to $91.52 nationally for the same amount of energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

DTE is seeking an 8.8 percent rate increase, arguing the money is needed to cover investments in its distribution system such as poles and wires, power generation and customer service.

Amy Bandyk, executive director of the utility ratepayers’ advocacy group Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, noted that utility watchdogs are still reading through the massive document. But Bandyk said she sees “some initial signs of concerns,” including the planned reliance on natural gas amid see-sawing prices and availability.

“This year’s volatility in the gas market shows the danger in increasing our dependence on gas for energy needs,” Bandyk said. 

In a statement, Trever Lauer, chief of DTE’s electric business, said natural gas “plays an important role in a diverse energy mix,” allowing the utility to deliver power during periods of peak demand. Turning to gas would also cost less, he said. 

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“We're going to keep ramping up renewables,” he said. “But I want to make sure that it's as affordable as possible.”

And there is “no way” to show down a plant as big as Monroe by 2030 while continuing to offer stable power.

Delivering power solely with wind and solar remains a challenge for utility companies. Unlike a coal or gas plant that can be fired up when needed, wind and solar rely on weather conditions to generate power. Advancements in battery technology are expected to circumvent that problem by making it more possible to store wind and solar energy for on-demand use. 

Clean energy advocates have had some recent success pushing for greater ambition in utility energy plans. In a settlement approved in June, Consumers Energy agreed to a settlement that puts it on track to shut its remaining coal plants by 2025, offsetting the capacity with a mix of renewables and gas.

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