Groups including Vote Solar, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) are urging Michigan regulators to require utility DTE Energy to evaluate renewable energy sources before building a proposed billion-dollar natural gas power plant.
On Friday, the groups presented two separate analyses to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) showing that using renewable energy like wind and solar would cost less for DTE Energy customers than building a gas plant, with the savings estimates ranging from $339 million to $1.2 billion.
“Using DTE’s own analysis tools, our analysis shows that this billion-dollar gas proposal is simply not the best way to provide reliable, affordable, and clean electricity for Michigan customers,” says Becky Stanfield, senior director of western states at Vote Solar. “The bottom line is that solar, wind and efficiency can do the job for less, and DTE should not be locking Michigan energy customers into paying for this costly gas option. More clean energy investment is also better for the state’s economy, building on a growing industry that already employs more than 90,000 Michiganders.”
The groups explain that, under a new resource planning law updated by state legislators in 2016, Michigan utilities must seek a “certificate of need” if they want assurance that they can pass the costs of building a plant of this size on to its customers. In order to gain that approval, they must demonstrate that their proposed investment is the “most prudent” way to serve its customers’ electricity needs.
“DTE did not meet its burden to show that their proposed gas plant was the best option for Michigan customers,” claims Sam Gomberg, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Under Michigan’s electricity planning law, the commission should send the company back to the drawing board.”
DTE Energy petitioned the MPSC for the certificate on July 31, asking to build a 1.1 GW natural gas-fired power plant in St. Clair County, replacing older coal-fired units in the area, which are retiring between now and 2023.
When announcing the project last year, DTE said the proposed natural gas plant would create “hundreds of Michigan jobs” during construction and was part of the utility’s plan to cut carbon emissions.
In the August announcement, the company’s Trevor F. Lauer said, “This filing with the MPSC includes nearly a year of research and a competitive bidding process that determined building a natural gas-fired plant is the best solution for our customers due to many factors, including the environment, reliability and affordability.”
Lauer added, “Natural gas-fired plants will be a critical part of our power generation capacity in the decades ahead. Natural gas significantly reduces carbon, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, offers an affordable and abundant domestic supply, is easy to transport and provides a reliable 24/7 power source for our 2.2 million customers.”
However, Margrethe Kearney, senior staff attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, argues that DTE is “overlooking flexible, reliable, renewable resources that can deliver affordable energy to their customers.”
According to the groups, the MSPC will review testimony presented by a range of experts from across the country, including those representing Vote Solar, ELPC, UCS and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
“DTE’s analysis was based on outdated and inaccurate assumptions about the costs and performance of solar power,” charges Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs for SEIA. “Our hope is that the commission will put the interests of customers first and ask DTE to start over with numbers that better reflect reality.”
The groups say hearings on DTE Energy’s gas plant proposal will take place in February, and a final order on the MPSC’s decision is expected April 2.