[This blog post is brought to you by Climate Blue investigative reporter, Emily Chang.]
[UPDATE: The Michigan Public Service Commission just released an initial brief that indicates that they intend to approve the plans for the plant early next week. ]
The news seems to be flying low on everybody’s radar: DTE Energy is planning to spend $1 billion of ratepayers’ money to build a new natural gas plant in East China Township! But now that you know… why should you know?
What is Natural Gas?
Natural gas is often touted as a “clean” fossil fuel, and while it emits less carbon dioxide than coal in power plants and vehicles, the extraction process is prone to leaking methane (significantly more potent than CO2) among other air pollutants, and is a culprit of habitat destruction which endangers wildlife and local water supplies. As electric utilities aim to replace their retiring and expensive coal generation facilities, they have increasingly turned toward plants fueled by natural gas. The apparent “benefits” of natural gas are only in relation to coal, but natural gas still wreaks havoc on the environment. If natural gas continues to be seen as the cleanest alternative next to coal, the future will keep going down a path with little promise.
Who or What is a DTE?
DTE Energy (formerly Detroit Edison) is a Detroit-based utility company that provides (you guessed it) energy services like electricity and natural gas for heating and cooking. As an investor-owned regulated monopoly, DTE receives a guaranteed profit from its electricity sales to its customers. The energy reform bills Governor Rick Snyder signed into law in 2016 included the “electric choice” program, which allows up to 10% of the electric market to be served by alternative suppliers. This leaves up to 90% of the market in the hands of DTE. Because DTE has so much control over the market, DTE has to get permission from the Michigan Public Service Commission(MPSC) to increase rates for consumers in order to build the new gas plant. According to DTE, the East China plant is apart of their plan to reduce the company’s carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
What are DTE’s Plans?
DTE has unveiled a plan to build a $1 billion natural gas plant in East China Township to replace the retiring coal power plants in the area. DTE filed a Certificate of Need with the Michigan Public Service Commision (MPSC) in July 2017 in seeking approval for the plant. The MPSC is a state entity of three Governor-appointed individuals meant to represent the public. In order to be approved, the Certificate of Need should show the natural gas plant is the “most prudent” and economical of all choices – meaning that is the the most cost-effective option for DTE’s ratepayers. After all, the public will be footing the cost through hiked rates, which could be $0.07 per kilowatt hour under the current proposal.
[DTE’s Monroe coal-fired power plant. Photo credit Detroit Free Press.]
Is the East China plant actually what is best for Michigan and its ratepayers? Organizations like Vote Solar, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and the Environmental Law Policy Center (ELPC) have formed the Power Up Michigan coalition. Advocates on both sides of the political spectrum are rallying against construction of the plant, as two alternative analyses have found that the proposed plant would cost from $339 million to $1.2 billion more than relative renewable energy options including a combination of solar, wind, increased energy efficiency program, and demand response. Power Up Michigan’s analysis found that DTE’s analysis overlooks the potential rise of natural gas prices and underestimates the accessibility and ability of renewable energy options.
Larry Ward, Executive Director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, wrote that “DTE Energy did not have its customers’ best interest in mind” and “by pivoting to natural gas alone, DTE is saddling ratepayers with unnecessary long-term costs, leaving families and businesses vulnerable to rising electricity prices” in a column in The Detroit News. Becky Stanfield, Senior Director of Western States at Vote Solar, points out, “a cleaner portfolio is also better for the state’s economy, building on an industry that already employs more than ninety-thousand Michiganders” in a Power Up Michigan press release. And in his analysis of the available information, Sam Gomberg, a senior energy analyst at UCS, concludes that “the evidence – $340 million worth – points towards renewables, efficiency, and demand response as the solutions that are going to cost-effectively meet customer demands while also reducing emissions” and thus, “under Michigan’s electricity planning law, the Commission should send the company back to the drawing board.”
With DTE’s oversights and strong counter analyses, the case for a natural gas plant is evidently shaky. MPSC will continue to review expert testimonies, including those of Vote Solar, UCS, and ELPC, and is expected to make a final decision on April 27th, 2018.
What Can You Do?
If you’re wondering what you can do, look no further! There are two petitions: (1) for members of the scientific and/or academic community and (2) for concerned members of the community.
If you know anyone who could be interested or if you think this is an important issue, please disseminate these petitions. Furthermore, you can make your voice heard by calling (517-284-8330) or emailing (firstname.lastname@example.org) the MPSC and letting them know as a member of the community and you believe they should reject DTE’s proposed natural gas plant (MPSC Case # U-18419) for the sake of a cleaner, cheaper future as the plant locks Michigan into a fossil fuel future that is dirty and expensive. We must act as the champions of our own future – a future that is not only more energy-efficient but also cost-efficient!
Be sure to stay updated with UCS, Power Up Michigan, or here on Climate Blue!
UCS Senior Energy Analyst Sam Gomberg’s Findings
Executive Director Larry Ward of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum Column
Environmental Law & Policy Center Press Release
MPSC’s Official Case Statement