Consumers: Customers can turn up thermostats at midnight

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

Consumers Energy is giving customers the "all clear" to dial up their thermostats amid the bitter cold at midnight after an emergency appeal for customers to conserve paid off. 

The utility's CEO, Patti Poppe, late Thursday credited the heroics of state residents and businesses for bringing the utility out of the danger zone amid a gas system failure that prompted unprecedented fears for the 130-year-old company.

The "unprecedented crisis" for the energy company started with a fire Wednesday morning at its Ray Compressor Station in Armada Township.

Consumers first called on some of its major commercial customers to shut down to help counteract the impact and turned to residents late Wednesday evening to plead for a reduction in gas usage through noon Friday. The company later adjusted that request, urging Michiganians to continue dialing back to at least 65 degrees until midnight. 

Poppe said the utility saw a 10 percent reduction in demand as a result of Wednesday night's appeal. It was "significant" and "important to stabilize the system."

The return to normal usage applies to commercial, industrial and residential customers, as well as schools, Poppe said. 

"Working together, we were able to really stabilize the system," said Poppe, noting about 100 of Consumers' largest customers voluntarily shut down operations. "We couldn't have done it without the heroic people of the state of Michigan. We could see the system was at risk, and boy, did they respond. Their support, their willingness to help, their sacrifice for their own production, for Michiganders health and safety, it was an extraordinary outpouring of support and response."

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Poppe on Thursday noted that Consumers had never experienced "this kind of demand or these kind of temperatures."

"We were prepared for these extremes, however, we could not overcome the failure of our equipment as a result of the fire at our largest storage and delivery facility," she said. "As a result of that, we had to ask for your help. That is where you all answered the call. We are sorry that we had to do that."

No customers have lost service or experienced an interruption as a result of the crisis, Poppe said. 

"We may never know that you took the action requested because we monitor at a system level, but we will forever be grateful that you did," she said.

The root cause of the Wednesday fire at its largest storage and delivery facility remains under investigation but one of three plants in Armada Township has been back online since last night, Poppe said. Repairs at the facility are ongoing.

A Consumers assessment of the two other plants in Armada Township continues and a timetable to have them fully functional again is not yet known.

Capt. Chris Kelenske said the Michigan State Police and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating “the cause and the origin” of the fire at the Consumers facility.

The fire affected Consumers' ability to deliver gas on hand at the facility and its storage. The company has 15 other storage fields and leveraged other resources from interstate pipelines, including its sister and brother utility, Detroit Edison, Poppe said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a Thursday press conference she is asking the Michigan Public Service Commission for an initial statewide review of natural gas, electricity and propane supplies and deliverability following the Consumers facility incident. She wants new contingency plans developed by July 1, with a final report to follow. 

"It is important that we get a handle on what's happened here and how we make sure that we are in a stronger position the next time we confront something of this nature," Whitmer said. 

The governor acknowledged she is concerned that nearly two-thirds of Consumers' natural gas supply comes through one facility and is susceptible to interruption.

Poppe said Consumers fully supports the review.

"Obviously, we're very interested in partnering with the state to make sure that we have a system that is robust and resilient," she said. "We want to do the review."

'Like we've never seen before'

Whitmer said she is also worried that climate change is producing  "temperatures and fluctuations like none we've seen before." The state must ensure dependable energy sources in the face of "increasingly frequent weather patterns," she said. 

In a briefing, Jim Maczko of the National Weather Service to Whitmer that Michigan is as cold as it's been since 1994, calling the combination of subzero temperatures and high winds a "pretty historic, rare event."

“We are seeing temperatures and fluctuations like we've never seen before … and so we've got to be prepared,” the governor said.

State government and the utilities need to ensure the production and delivery of natural gas is safe and dependable so the state can navigate "these increasingly frequent weather patterns," Whitmer said.

An appeal to customers came late Wednesday amid the frigid temperatures after efforts to curtail large industrial customers wasn't dropping the load enough because of the frigid temperatures and residential use.

Consumers’ tariff agreement with the state requires the company to follow a priority list when curtailing gas deliveries to customers.

The priority list starts with non-residential customers who have alternate fuel capability, then moves to commercial and industrial gas users starting with the largest users and working their way to the smallest. The priority list ends with residential users, small commercial users, and “services essential for public health and safety not covered by an alternate fuel.”

Firms, residents stabilize system

In a typical Michigan winter day, about 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas moves across the state. With the extreme temperatures, Poppe said, there was 3.3 billion cubic feet of demand Wednesday and it was forecast to be around 3.7 billion Thursday. 

Thursday's usage has been more like 3.2 billion cubic feet "as a direct result of the actions people took across the state," she said.

After Poppe's appeal via Facebook, the state's Emergency Alert System and  Whitmer also asked Michiganians keep their thermostats at 65 or lower for the time being. 

Flames shoot from two silo-looking structures at the compressor station. According to, the Ray Compressor Station, with its 41.2 billion cubic feet of storage, is Consumers Energy’s largest underground natural gas storage and compressor facility.

On Thursday morning, Poppe renewed that request and urged customers to lower thermostats to 62 degrees when they leave the home.

DTE Energy Co. also called for people to reduce electricity usage during the cold blast to "help safeguard the reliability of the regional energy grid" but rescinded that request late Thursday morning.

The company noted, though, it has turned down its own thermostats per Whitmer's request.

Given the extreme cold and some "interconnection" among energy systems in Michigan, all energy users should lower their thermostats if possible, PSC spokesman Nick  Assendelft, said.

“Anything that anybody can do would really help the overall situation,” he said.

Michigan State University on Thursday warned employees that it would lower the heat in office areas in an effort to conserve energy but not change temperatures in residence halls and laboratories.

The university also announced on its website that hot water would be cut off for Berkey Hall, Bessey Hall, Business College South Complex, Erickson Hall, food safety and toxicology, the football building, the geography building, the law college, natural resources and packaging.

General Motors Co. halted operations at 13 manufacturing facilities and three corporate locations. Five of the affected plants came back on line on a limited basis for the second shift Thursday.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles canceled first- and second-shift production at Warren Truck and Sterling Heights Assembly Plants.

Ford Motor Co. has curtailed certain heat-intensive processes at some plants in the state.

About 4.1 million Michiganians in 45 counties get their natural gas through Consumers, according to the utility. That breaks down to 1.7 million individual consumers, 1.6 million of them being residential. 

Also Thursday, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel thanked the governor for her leadership in the wake of the fire. He also thanked automakers for their sacrifice.

"This situation had the potential for widespread service interruptions," Hackel said in a statement. "I want to thank Gov. Whitmer for her leadership during this incident and for her commitment to keep the public informed."

"I also want to commend Ford, General Motors and FCA for the sacrifice they made by shutting down production in facilities across our region."

He also said Metro Detroiters need to conserve natural gas.

"I want to reiterate that the need is very real," Hackel said. "To help, residents and businesses are being asked to turn down their thermostat to a recommended 65 degrees."

Detroit News Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and Charles E. Ramirez contributed