Appeals flood consumers: Use less gas after utility fire

Sarah Rahal Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Fire comes out of the top of two silo-like structures at Consumers Energy's Ray Compressor Station in Armada Twp. Wednesday.

Armada Township — Consumers Energy said its customers' reduced gas usage is helping it deal with a hobbled gas compressor station in Macomb County.

"Consumers Energy greatly appreciates conservation efforts by all natural gas customers across Lower Michigan to assist with a supply issue on the company’s gas distribution network," officials with the energy company said Thursday in a statement. "Conservation, even by gas customers served by other utilities than Consumers Energy, is making a difference."

The news comes hours after the company's top executive called on the company's customers to cut usage after a Wednesday morning fire at its Ray Compressor Station. She also said there would be brief, localized shutoffs if customers ignored the request.

"This truly is an unprecedented crisis," Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe said Wednesday. "We have never been in this situation before."

The governor and the public service commission also urged customers to cut gas usage due to the fire.

On Thursday, the company said it was "cautiously optimistic that our public requests to reduce gas use are having a positive effect."

Still, it pleaded with customers to continue conservation measures through the end of the day Friday because of Thursday’s historically cold weather.

"Repairs at our Ray Compressor Station are ongoing and the station is partially in service, providing natural gas to our distribution system," officials said. "However, we are asking that all customers continue to conserve until the end of the day Friday, Feb. 1, to allow for temperatures to moderate and additional repairs to the Ray Station."

GM agreed to suspend operations upon request by Consumers Energy to help the utility manage supply issues following high demand and a fire at the utility's Armada Township facility at about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Consumers reached out to its largest business customers to cut usage and to suppliers to bring in additional supplies to Michigan. Automakers are suspending operations and curtailing work in response. 

General Motors Co. is halting operations at 13 manufacturing facilities and three corporate locations. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has cancelled first-shift production at Warren Truck and Sterling Heights Assembly Plants. Ford Motor Co. has curtailed certain heat-intensive processes at some plants.

"If we don’t get the reduction in demand, and if the system doesn't flow properly in any other way," Poppe said. The energy company could start notifying commercial and residential customers about "localized planned curtailments."

The situation caught the attention of the National Security Council in Washington. The agency asked for people to "please listen" to state and local authorities over natural gas usage. 

The head of Consumers, on the coldest day of the year, aksed  its 1.8 million customers Wednesday night to use less gas to heat their homes following the fire at one of the utility's "most significant facilities," which accounts a majority of its supply.

That was quickly followed by a request from the governor urging dialing thermostats down to 65 and Michigan Public Service Commission asking customers to reduce usage. Soon after, an emergency alert asked gas customers to cut usage.

Consumers said the Ray Compressor Station, where the fire occurred, accounts for roughly 64 percent of its supply.

More:Consumers CEO warns of brief shutoffs if thermostats don't drop

More:Late-night emergency text from state calls for lowering thermostats

More:Arctic cold that killed 2 to linger in state

Consumers wasn't the only utility Wednesday calling on customers to dial down. DTE Energy called for reduce electricity usage during the cold blast to "help safeguard the reliability of the regional energy grid."

Poppe, in the unusual request in a Facebook Live video, said the freezing temperatures were creating more demand and stress on a system that "worked perfectly" until affected by the blast at "one of our most significant facilities."

The fire, she said, has affected Consumers' ability to deliver natural gas to customers statewide.

As a result, the company announced earlier that it was activating natural gas peaking storage fields in Northville and St. Clair County to help deliver natural gas.

"We are appealing to all Michiganders to consider reducing your thermostat as much as you can. It will make a difference," Poppe said on Facebook. "... We have an opportunity to protect the system so that we can deliver enough gas for everyone to have some heat and to protect our most critical facilities, like hospitals and senior citizens' homes."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also called for voluntary reductions of gas usage, urging Michiganians to think about their role "in helping people across the state survive these extreme temperatures."

“I’m coming to you now to ask for your help," she said in a statement. "Due to extremely high demand for natural gas with these record low temperatures and a facility incident, Consumers Energy has asked that everyone who is able to turn down their thermostats through Friday at noon so we can all get through this with minimal harm.

"So please: turn your thermostat down to 65 degrees or lower and amplify this message by reposting and making sure your friends, relatives and neighbors who are getting ready for bed to turn theirs down too.

"You can play a role in helping people across the state survive these extreme temperatures. Please do. We’re calling on every Michigander to do your part and help us weather this storm together.”

The fire erupted at 10:33 a.m. at Consumers Energy's Ray Natural Gas Compressor Station on the 69300 block of Omo Road, north of 32 Mile.

No injuries were reported. The fire, involving equipment, Consumers said, was contained within 1 ½ hours, utility officials said, adding that it was unclear what caused the blast. 

Consumers has been in talks with DTE Energy to supplement gas supplies during the shortage, the companies' officials confirmed.

Consumers said despite the blast and burn-off of natural gas, the utility had filled 15 large storage facilities with extra supply for their 1.8 million natural gas customers across the state in preparation for winter fuel usage.  

Personnel on hand who handle emergencies at the Ray station contacted emergency responders, who contained the fire while letting it burn until 3 p.m., said Garrick Rochow, the company's senior vice president of operations.

" ... It's the best way to make sure all of the gas is used up," Rochow said of the contained burned. "Next, we'll do a root-cause evaluation ... It's too early to know what caused this."

Washington Township Engine 3, left, and Armada Township Water One stand by at the facility after the explosion and fire.

Natural gas flow from the facility has been cut off until assessments of the damage can be made, said Consumers spokeswoman Debra Dodd.

"We store gas at these fields just for this purpose, in times of critical need," Dodd said.

The blast produced a strange scene of fire juxtaposed against a wintry scene of snow and ice.  

Consumers Energy's Ray Compressor Station on Omo Road, just north of 32 Mile in Armada Township, has 41.2 billion cubic feet of storage. It is the company's largest underground natural gas storage and compressor facility.

DTE said its natural gas system and that of Consumers are connected in southeast Michigan and they are aiding Consumers "as much as we can without hindering any of our customers," said spokeswoman Jill Wilmot.

Staff from the Michigan Public Service Commission's Gas Operations Section were onsite at the Consumers Energy facility in Macomb County to ensure public safety after the explosion.

"This unfortunate incident happened at a difficult time for our state and we ask that everyone do what they can to make sure there is a plentiful supply of natural gas to keep everyone safe and warm during the extreme cold weather," Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman Sally Talberg said in a statement. "... All state of Michigan-owned facilities in the Lower Peninsula are lowering their thermostats by 5-degrees to lessen the burden on the natural gas supply." 

The Public Service Commission "regularly vets utility distribution plans filed with the commission and monitors pipeline reliability," said Nick Assendelft, a spokesman for the commission. 

"Its gas safety engineers are in the field every day across the state, checking facility operations and pipeline construction," he said. 

The blast that accompanied the fire was felt miles away. Sherry Ventimiglia lives about two miles from the Ray station, said she thought something had happened to her home.

"It felt like something fell against the house, like a tree or something like that," Ventimiglia said. "It shook the whole house. ... I literally went running through my whole house to make sure nothing had exploded or fallen. It was very intense."

The energy company offered customers the following tips to reduce gas usage:

  • Set furnaces at a lower temperature. Keep the thermostat at 65 degrees while at home and 62 degrees when away for less than five hours.
  • Make sure all windows and doors are closed tightly. Check for leaks in windows and doors by feeling around for cool air.

DTE offered these tips to reduce electricity usage:

Dial down your thermostat

Minimize use of electrical appliances such as washers,dryers, ovens, humidifiers and dishwashers

Open curtains on south-facing windows during the day and close them at night

Use heavy-duty clear plastic sheeting or film snuggly on the inside of windows during cold months

Detroit News Staff Writers James David Dickson and Oralandar Brand-Williams contributed to this report.