Consumers Energy to consider retiring coal units sooner

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
As a part of Consumers Energy Co.'s plan approved by the state of Michigan Friday, it will analyze retiring two units at the J.H. Campbell Generating Complex earlier in 2025.

Consumers Energy Co. will investigate moving up the retirement dates for two coal-fueled units, despite work in the Trump administration to revive the dying coal industry.

The Michigan Public Service Commission approved Friday the Jackson-based utility company's plan outlining its measures for the next five, 10 and 15 years to ensure reliable energy services to its millions of customers in the Lower Peninsula. It will file its next resource plan in June 2021.

"Consumers Energy is leading the way," Patti Poppe, CEO of Consumers parent CMS Energy Corp., said on a call Friday. "We don't have to wait for things to get worked out with rules and regulations. We will make sure we are doing our part to have both clean and affordable energy."

The approved integrated resource plan requires Consumers to conduct an analysis assessing the closure of two coal-burning units at the J.H. Campbell Generating Complex in West Olive near Port Sheldon with an eye toward retiring them as early as 2025. A year ago, Consumers said it planned to stop running the generators in 2031.

President Donald Trump campaigned on spurring growth in the coal industry again. His administration has floated the idea of declaring an energy state of emergency to stop the closure of coal plants and increased funding for research and development for them.

But energy companies mostly have rebuked Trump's encouragement of coal, turning toward natural gas and renewable energy such as wind and solar as cheaper alternatives to replace coal-fueled generators. Fifty coal plants nationwide have closed since Trump took office, and renewables in April generated more electricity than coal power plants for the first time.

Consumers Energy has promised to end its use of coal and reduce carbon emissions by more than 90% by 2040. Detroit-based DTE Energy Co. in March also said it was speeding up the closure of its coal-fired plants.

The Jackson utility's approved plan keeps on track to retire two units at the D.E. Karn Plant in Hampton Township near Bay City in 2023. Two remaining units at Karn would close in 2031, and a third at Campbell would operate until 2040. Their retirements follow the closure of seven coal units in 2016.

More than three hundred people work at Karn, and Campbell employs 433 people. Some are preparing for retirements when the units shut down, Poppe said, and others will be reskilled for new positions.

"We want to make sure we can redevelop those sites for future use that they can benefit their communities," she said.

The company plans to replace the coal plants with renewable energy sources and programs that cut energy waste totaling 718 megawatts by June 2022, which is about 2% of the utility's annual electricity sales. Improvements to Consumers' systems will save 44 megawatts over the next three years, and time-based rates and other demand response programs also will seek to save 607 megawatts to avoid having to build new power plants for peak consumption periods.

Consumers also will add 1,200 megawatts of new solar energy by the end of 2021 through an annual competitive bidding process, a new feature to the resource plan. The company can own up to half but must buy the remaining through power purchase agreements with third parties.

"Before, it was a sucker's choice to have clean and expensive energy or the cheap and dirty stuff," Poppe said. "It's not the case anymore. We can have clean and affordable energy for all Michiganders."

This will help bring Consumers' energy portfolio to 56% renewable sources, 10% natural gas, 12% energy storage and a 22% use reduction from energy efficiency programs.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, said Friday the resource plan was a step forward, but called on Consumers to make plans to retire Campbell's units earlier.

The public service commission Friday also ordered Consumers to respond to findings that the company neglected to mark underground utility lines in a timely manner in more than 20,000 instances in April and May after customers contacted Miss Digg 811 of plans to excavate. The public safety program aims to avoid buried utility lines from being struck while digging.

"We're actively supplementing our contractors to make sure staking is done in a timely manner," Poppe said. "It's very important that people follow the laws that ensure utility lines are marked and that we raise awareness of calling Miss Digg before you dig."