Consumers CEO: Two natural gas plants still down after Jan. 30 fire
Lansing — Two compressor station plants downed by a fire on Michigan’s coldest days in January will remain out of service through the remainder of the winter months, Consumers Energy President and CEO Patricia Poppe said Wednesday.
“That’s all we’re going to plan on for the balance of the heating season,” Poppe told state lawmakers about the company’s use of Plant 1 at the Ray Compressor Station in Macomb County. “We’re taking the time to basically re-engineer Plants 2 and 3 to confirm this won’t happen again.”
During nearly an hour and a half of testimony Wednesday, Poppe described Consumers Energy’s overall operation and plans for the future before giving lawmakers a detailed summary of the company’s Jan. 30 natural gas crisis.
Poppe told lawmakers the compressor station fire and resulting appeal for reduced customer usage were not a result of aging infrastructure or a lack of supply, but a “confluence of events” that damaged equipment instrumental in the distribution of natural gas.
The morning of the Ray Compressor Station fire, Consumers had been meeting peak demand on a day when the closure of schools and state buildings kept most folks inside with their home thermostats hiked up, Poppe said. A little more than an hour later, the situation changed.
A still-unknown “abnormality” set off an alarm within Plant 3 of the Ray Compressor Station, a Macomb County facility that has the capacity to distribute 64 percent of the company’s natural gas and was expected to distribute between 45 and 50 percent that day.
The alarm triggered a “firegate” that released natural gas outside. But instead of dissipating, as it should have, the gas “hung,” Poppe said, until the wind blew it over other equipment where the “plume ignited all the way back to the stack.”
Operators who saw the fireball “could feel the heat through the glass” of their office windows, Poppe said. The operators followed protocol and initiated a firegate release at Plant 2, which also ignited.
Plant 1 was firegated last, but the gas released from that site did not ignite.
However, by the time the fire was extinguished around 3 p.m. that day, many of the valves and pipes in Plant 1 had frozen because of the water contained in dehydration equipment used to pull liquid from the stored natural gas. The frozen equipment delayed operations at the plant further.
Consumers forecast that customers would use roughly 3.7 billion cubic feet of gas the next day, Jan. 31, a record-breaking uptick from the average 2 billion cubic feet used on a normal 20-degree winter day.
The company required shutoffs at some large industrial users while it continued its efforts to bring Plant 1 back online, Poppe said. When the plant remained out of commission later that evening, the company worked with the Emergency Operations Center to send Michigan residents text alerts asking them to lower their thermostats to 65 degrees.
“We were waiting for Ray 1 to come back online and, had it, we would not have had to make the appeal,” Poppe said, noting that the decision to make the appeal was made around 8 p.m. and the station came back online at 10:40 p.m.
Usage declined 10 percent after the appeal, a decrease without which the company would have mandated shutoffs, Poppe said.
“We had crews on the standby ready to go and start shutting off valves, which would have shut off supply to large numbers of people and businesses,” Poppe said. “We wouldn’t have been able to be selective. The system would have demanded where those curtailments happened.”
While the abnormality that triggered the initial alarm in Plant 3 remains a mystery, Poppe said the greatest need for correction lies in the chain of events that followed.
“We need to have a better purchasing strategy, a better configuration to serve a peak day so that we wouldn’t be so reliant on one facility,” Poppe said.
The Michigan Public Service Commission in early February opened two probes into the Jan. 30 incident. One will investigate the circumstances surrounding the fire at Consumers Energy’s Ray Compressor and another, at the request of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will review the state’s supply and delivery of natural gas and propane.