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Consumers Energy asked customers Wednesday night to lower their natural gas usage after a fire earlier in the day at a key plant in Macomb County produced "an unprecedented crisis."

The utility may not ask again. After a fire at its Macomb County facility that supplies 64 percent of the natural gas in Michigan, its CEO said involuntary reductions to homes and businesses may follow for some of its 1.8 million customers.

With temperatures in Michigan forecast to plunge well below zero early Thursday, Consumers anticipates demand reaching 3.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas, far above the 1.25 billion cubic feet seen on a typical winter day, CEO Patti Poppe said.

Wednesday's usage was 3.3 billion cubic feet, she said.

More: Arctic cold that killed 2 to linger in state

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

"This truly is an unprecedented crisis," she said. "We have never been in this situation before."

The state's situation has the National Security Council in Washington asking for Michiganians to "please listen" to state and local authorities over natural gas usage. 

The facility in Armada Township is producing far less after extensive fire damage involving equipment that delivers the gas, said Poppe, who took to Facebook Live late Wednesday for a personal appeal to consumers to lower their thermostats.

"If we don’t get the reduction in demand, and if the system doesn't flow properly in any other way," she told The Detroit News after the video remarks, the company could start notifying commercial and residential customers about "localized planned curtailments."

That means businesses and homes in certain areas would have energy shut off for brief periods. "Relighting," the process to restore it, "takes a very long time," Poppe said. "That’s what we’re trying to avoid."

Poppe said the Armada Township site of the fire that affected two of three units that funnels natural gas was prepared for the soaring demand amid the polar vortex gripping the state and region until the blast Wednesday morning sent the facility offline.

"We have plenty of gas" stored, Poppe said. "We just can't get it out of the ground to bring to our customers because the equipment that delivers it is what is damaged."

Crews brought one of the units back online Wednesday, but that means the plant can produce only a portion of its typical output, Poppe said.

As a result of the fire, Consumers announced that it was activating natural gas peaking storage fields in Northville and St. Clair County to help deliver natural gas to homes and businesses.

Industrial customers like General Motors suspending operations is also "a huge step, but not enough," Poppe said. "Residential heating drives the demand under these kind of conditions."

That's why, to help save energy and avoid overburdening the system, the company is calling for customers to set their thermostat to 65 degrees while at home and 62 when away for under five hours through Friday.

"It can make a difference," Poppe said. "If people can work with us, by Saturday the temperatures rise enough so that we can easily serve the demand."

 

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