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Environmental groups on Thursday intensified their opposition to a proposed natural gas plant by DTE Energy and pressured the utility to seek clean energy alternatives to the $1 billion plant.

Representatives from 12 environmental groups dropped off 10,000 signatures opposing the power facility during a slightly tense encounter with security officials at the DTE Energy headquarters in Detroit. The drop-off followed a nearby news conference where opponents argued the proposed St. Clair County power plant would not only be harmful but increase electricity costs for customers.

“This is a critical moment,” said Becky Stanfield, the senior director, western states, for Vote Solar, a group that lobbies states for clean energy alternatives. “If they get the greenlight to build this plant, it will harm people who are paying the electric bills, it will harm people who want to build a clean energy economy and are standing, waiting to hire people in Michigan and it will harm public health.”

Last year, DTE Energy proposed the 1,100-megawatt facility that would supply electricity to 850,000 homes in Michigan beginning in 2022. The utility has argued that natural-gas-fired plants, along with an increase in solar and wind production, will help cut its carbon emissions 30 percent by the early 2020s and 80 percent by 2050.

Environmental groups have lauded DTE Energy’s decision to shut down outdated coal-fired plants but opposed the East China Township facility when it was proposed in July to the Michigan Public Service Commission. They argue relying more on solar and wind power and energy efficiency is less expensive and wouldn’t pollute communities.

“This plant really serves no one other than DTE’s bottom line,” Stansfield said.

The commission is expected to decide by April 27 to decide to allow DTE to charge customers for the building of the plant. It has taken testimony from supporting and opposing experts.

Michelle Martinez, the statewide coordinator of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said natural gas alone “is really toxic” and that it helps contribute to “ground level ozone” problems.

“That is really dangerous for us because as it gets hotter in the summer time, your lungs begin to swell up and you can’t breathe,” Martinez said. “So the health impact for the community directly around a facility are really important to review on an in-depth level. Pollution knows no boundaries.”

DTE Energy is “overwhelmingly in favor of investing in renewable energy” and has “driven investments of more than $2 billion in wind and solar power over the last decade,” said DTE spokeswoman Stephanie Beres. The Detroit utility has proposed doubling renewable energy capacity by 2022 to reduce carbon emissions, she said..

“DTE is retiring three aging coal-fired power plants in the next five years, nearly 20 percent of our power capacity,” she said. “While renewable energy plays a critical role in Michigan’s energy landscape today and into the future, wind and solar only provide energy when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. As the coal-fired plants providing 24/7 energy are retired, we need to invest in new, cleaner resources that continue to provide the around-the-clock power Michiganders depend on.”

Nathan Murphy, the state director of Ann Arbor-based Environment Michigan, said as the price of renewable energy declines, it makes little economic sense to pursue natural-gas-fired power.

“DTE’s going to continue to make money on it, and they’re just going to pass their bad decision along to the ratepayers,” Murphy said.

But Beres said DTE has conducted “extensive modeling” with more than 50 scenarios “to figure out how to best meet the 24/7 needs of our customers.”

Natural gas “is cleaner, more efficient and easier to transport than coal.” she said.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

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