Panel: Michigan natural gas system 'adequate,' but better emergency prep needed
A state energy commission has recommended Michigan's utility companies make a raft of changes to better prepare for an emergency like the one that threatened natural gas distribution during a record cold spell in late January.
The Michigan Public Service Commission's draft report found that Michigan’s energy supply and delivery systems by and large are “adequate,” but the commission made three dozen recommendations to mitigate and respond to energy emergencies.
The panel also ordered Consumers Energy in particular on Tuesday to evaluate its incident command and action plans and update commissioners on the status of repairs and the expected costs related to the fire at the Ray Natural Gas Compressor Station in Macomb County.
Among the recommendations stemming from the compressor station fire and resulting plea for reduced natural gas usage in January is one that would ask utilities to prioritize home heating needs over electricity generation if a company needs to curtail natural gas use.
The report also recommends a contingency plan be developed for the supply and delivery of propane to the Upper Peninsula in the event that Line 5 is shut down through the Straits of Mackinac, a scenario that Attorney General Dana Nessel is seeking in a lawsuit filed last week.
The Monday report comes nearly five months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked the commission to evaluate the adequacy of the state’s energy resources and find ways to reduce risk.
Whitmer's request followed a large fire at Consumers Energy’s Ray Compressor Station that led the state to beg residents to turn down their thermostats as temperatures dipped into negative digits Jan. 30 and 31.
“Moving forward, this report will help to inform our next steps in assuring all Michiganders have reliable access to energy when they need it at home, at school, and at work,” Whitmer said in a statement. “With the transition to more renewable energy resources and the growing impact of climate change, it is imperative that our utility infrastructure can meet the changing demands while keeping rates affordable and protecting the environment.”
The draft report stemming from the energy assessment will be discussed during a Tuesday commission meeting. Residents will have the opportunity to comment on the recommendations prior to the final report’s release in September.
Consumers Energy is reviewing the initial report and will continue working with the commission as it prepares the final document, said company spokeswoman Katie Carey.
“Consumers Energy is committed to people, the planet and Michigan’s prosperity and that means ensuring our statewide gas and electric systems are ready for any obstacle," Carey said.
Consumers Energy has said the reduced natural gas availability in late January was related to the ability to transport natural gas and not the supply itself — an argument the commission report seems to support by noting that Michigan ranks No. 1 in natural gas storage capacity.
But the report also noted “inherent risks,” such as equipment failures, security threats and severe weather, to the supply and infrastructure for natural gas and propane.
“More routine events such as ice and wind storms causing power outages also have the potential to impact a large number of customers for extended periods and cause safety concerns,” the report said.
To address those weaknesses, the report makes 36 recommendations, including long-term maintenance and infrastructure plans that consider worst-case scenarios; a better diversification of power supplies; and the possibility of importing electrical generation from out of state.
The report also recommends better communication with customers regarding the need for reduced usage during high demand so as to avoid a last-minute emergency appeal; clearer rules for reporting natural gas incidents and cyber security threats; and more emergency drills that involve both the utilities and state agencies.
“Communication related to the Ray event and the polar vortex was confusing, inconsistent, and erratic,” the commission said in a statement Monday.
The commission on Tuesday said it will accept public comments on the initial statewide energy assessment report through Aug. 9. Comments referencing case No. U-20464 can be sent to Executive Secretary, Michigan Public Service Commission, P.O. Box 30221, Lansing, MI 48909 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The panel was expected Tuesday to hear a report on some of the ongoing communication between commission staff and Consumers Energy regarding the company’s April report on the root cause and response to the Jan. 30 compressor station fire.
While the commission’s own root cause analysis isn't due until Jan. 31, 2020, Consumers Energy issued a report in April that found the fire was not a result of improper equipment maintenance, but a “perfect storm” of tripped signals, cold weather and wind direction.
The company said it would review a safety venting system that led to and exacerbated the fire at the compression stations in Macomb County.
A signal to the plant’s fire gate control system caused one of three compressor stations on site to release gas as part of its fire gate control system, the company's investigation found. The gas did not disperse in the extreme cold and instead was carried over a second station where extremely hot equipment ignited the natural gas and created a sort of domino effect of gas releases and fires at the remaining stations.
The fires crippled the Macomb County facility, which has the capacity to distribute 64% of the company’s natural gas, and led to some shutoffs for large industrial users.
The company will implement new procedures across the natural gas system to increase resiliency, "avoiding these extraordinary circumstances in the future," Carey said.