Panel OKs $1B power plant for St. Clair County

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
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Lansing — The Michigan Public Service Commission on Friday gave final approval to a proposed $1 billion natural-gas-fired plant in St. Clair County, which will help replace power from a string of coal-fired plants that DTE Energy plans to retire.

The three-member panel approved three certificates of necessity for DTE Energy, but only after sternly warning the Detroit-based utility that it should be more “forthcoming” with the public in the future.

Commissioner Norman Saari chided the utility for its “legal bullying” when addressing challenges to the plant and asked the company to refrain from referring to opposing testimony by environmentalists and others as an “attempt to throw sand in the gears of this proceeding” or “an exercise in obfuscation.”

“The commission’s hearing system is not a parlor game where you are encouraged to ridicule the process and humiliate the participants,” Saari said.

DTE Energy’s plan for a natural gas plant near its Belle River Power Plant in East China Township has been hotly contested by environmental groups that instead urged the utility to increase its use of clean energy alternatives, such as wind and solar.

The 1,100-megawatt facility is expected to supply 850,000 homes in Michigan with electricity by 2022. DTE Electric President and CEO Trevor Lauer said the utility hopes to have its water, air and construction permits by the end of the year and start construction in the spring of 2019.

DTE has argued the East China Township plant, along with a planned increase in solar and wind production, would cut carbon emissions 30 percent by the early 2020s and 80 percent by 2050.

The company’s fuel mix in 2017 was 65 percent coal, 21 percent nuclear, 5 percent gas and 9 percent renewable energy sources.

The company has said it will retire three aging coal-fired power plants in the next five years and has invested more than $2 billion in wind and solar power in the last decade. Among the coal-fired plants is an existing facility in East China Township that is expected to close between 2020 and 2023.

Lauer said the group was happy with the commission’s decision.

“It complements the renewable energy mix that we continue to add in,” Lauer told reporters after Friday’s meeting. “This gas plant is really important to have a base load facility that can operate with the renewables.”

DTE will take into consideration the commission’s comments for future projects, he said.

“It’s something we have to learn from at DTE Energy,” Lauer said. “It’s not the way we would ever want to be portrayed.”

Sally Talberg, chairwoman of the public service commission, said concerns about the DTE facility stemmed from the difficulties and delays encountered during discovery when DTE was supposed to share its modeling data and the assumptions underlying that data.

“Even though it can be adversarial at times with attorneys representing their clients, it’s really important to have decorum and exchange of information to make an informed decision by the commission,” Talberg told reporters after the meeting.

When the information was shared, the tone of the company’s legal briefs was “somewhat untenable,” Talberg added.

The last time the commission granted approvals for a plant of this size was 30 years ago. Talberg said the record the commission reviewed was one of the “most extensive and complex” she’d seen in five years.

With Friday’s decision, the commission effectively recognized that the energy created by the new plant was needed, natural gas was the most “reasonable and prudent means” of generating the energy and the company could recoup up to $951.8 million for the project from ratepayers. The amount was less than the $989 million for which DTE sought approval.

“I think this plan can really position Michigan to transition to a cleaner energy future and complement renewable energy and other options available,” Talberg said.

Environmental groups reacted swiftly to the decision.

PowerUP Michigan, a coalition of public health and clean energy advocates, said commissioners disregarded alternate modeling that showed a combination of solar, wind, storage and energy efficiencies could have saved ratepayers $300 million to $1.1 billion.

In a statement from the coalition, Margrethe Kearney, senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the group will read the order and discuss “all options, including appeal.”

Sam Gomberg, senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the decision will cost ratepayers personally and financially.

“It is a sad day for Michigan when robust analytics, hundreds of public comments from DTE customers, and input from dozens of economics, public health, engineering, energy and natural resources experts in opposition can’t convince the commission that another fossil fuel-burning power plant isn’t in ratepayers’ best interests,” Gomberg said in a statement.

Leisl Clark, president for the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, said the group was disappointed in the decision.

“The commission should have ordered DTE Energy to submit a plan that included more renewable energy, like wind and solar, and energy efficiency to bolster Michigan’s advanced energy economy and hedge against volatile natural gas prices,” Clark said in a statement.

Kindra Weid, coalition coordinator for Air MI Health, said burning fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal can lead to increased risks of asthma, lung disease and heart disease.

“Instead of replacing aging coal plants with yet another fossil fuel source, DTE Energy should invest in clean, renewable energy to reduce pollution and save lives,” Weid said in a statement.

Other groups applauded the decision, including the Michigan Manufacturing Association and the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council.

St. Clair County Commissioner Jeff Bohm said the decision was welcome news for the county and state.

“The new, cleaner natural gas power plant will create hundreds of jobs and provide additional revenue that we can put toward improving our roads, schools and other essential services,” Bohm said in a statement. “With three coal-fired plants scheduled to retire, we need the affordable, reliable energy that natural gas plants provide.”

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