A Michigan power utility is turning to its customers for reductions in energy demand that will help it keep its promise not to build any more natural gas plants.
“This is not a theoretical call to act, this is not a PR stunt,” Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe said last month, during a tour of the state’s Lower Peninsula. “This is a call to act to protect our planet for generations to come.”
The utility “can’t deliver this clean energy plan without the people of Michigan actually fundamentally changing and eliminating the energy waste that we take for granted today,” she added.
The consumer participation could be enough to prevent construction of three new gas plants by 2040, Energy News Network reports.
“Over the next few months, utility officials plan to stress this point to customers and businesses as they explain the company’s new Clean Energy Plan that calls for 90% clean energy by 2040,” ENN writes. “While the plan calls for 6,000 megawatts of new solar by 2040, customer efficiency programs make up 22% of the portfolio in that time. If Consumers can’t hit this target to cut energy waste, it will be forced to build up to three new gas plants to maintain reliability.”
Poppe said Consumers has already cut demand by 800 megawatts, an amount Energy News Network says is high enough to “backfill” for an 800-MW nuclear reactor contract that will be phased out in 2022. As the company retires coal plants, it plans to replace them mostly with solar, along with energy efficiency programs to reduce peak loads. Taking the Lower Peninsula as an example, ENN notes that the region has average demand of 4,200 MW, but peaks at about 7,000 MW on a few crucial days each year.
One of the biggest challenges facing power utilities everywhere is the need to build or buy enough generating capacity to meet that kind of peak—using power plants that mostly remain idle the rest of the year—unless they can offset the extraordinary demand with efficiency or renewables.
In Michigan, “the growing use of smart grid technology, electric vehicle charging, and demand response programs allows the company to be ‘much more sophisticated’ in how it reduces demand,” writes reporter Andy Balaskovitz, citing Poppe. But the success of that strategy depends on customers knowing what to do—and getting it done.
“If people don’t sign up for these programs and reduce their energy waste, we are in a position where we’re going to have to build a plant,” Poppe told Balaskovitz. “We’re betting on the people of Michigan.”
The news story traces Consumers’ journey from a utility that saw new natural gas plants as what Poppe recalled as an “obvious scenario”, to a new integrated resource plan that “unapologetically” favours a triple bottom line approach to “people, prosperity, and planet”, Energy News Network writes. “It was a departure from post-World War II utility planning that rushed to build large coal plants to meet growing demand.”
“We got input from people, and we learned things,” Poppe said. “We changed the plan as a result of people’s input.” And now, “given that we have the opportunity of a generation to determine how we’ll replace these big central power plants, we’ll replace them with modular renewables because it’s smarter.”
Consumers’ approach is creating a counterpoint to another Michigan utility, DTE Energy, which has been scorched by clean energy groups for favouring the generating stations it already owns over solar and efficiency. “From start to finish, DTE has done whatever they wanted,” said Ariana Gonzalez, senior energy policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.