What will replace coal? | Michigan Radio
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What will replace coal?

Mar 22, 2018

Tracy Samilton also spoke with Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about the issues surrounding the transition to natural gas

The President of the United States says coal is coming back, but in reality coal is going away.

The fight is over what will replace it.

Even utilities are dumping coal. In Michigan, DTE Energy wants to shut down three coal-burning power plants and replace them with a billion dollar natural gas plant.

But environmentalists think there's a better way.  

First of all, there’s no such thing as clean coal.

Even brand new coal plants dump a lot of carbon into the air. Carbon emissions are very bad for the planet, and it’s a fact that renewable energy sources like solar and wind emit zero carbon.

DTE Energy's Irene Dimitry doesn’t disagree.

“We support renewables and want to make sure that people understand that we do,” Dimitry says. “We just need to do it in a paced, thoughtful, plan-ful way.”

Dimitry says DTE is closing three of its coal-burning plants in five years, but she says it's not feasible for renewables to take their place. That’s where a plan for a new 1,100 megawatt natural gas plant comes in.

“Because the wind doesn't always blow, and the sun doesn't always shine, and because storage is not yet commercial viable at a large scale, we really need a plant that can operate 24-7 and insure reliability for our customers,” Dimitry says.

Right now, natural gas is cheap and plentiful, and it produces about 60% fewer carbon emissions than coal. Still, DTE can't just build the plant; it needs permission from the Michigan Public Service Commission.  

To do that, it has to analyze the alternatives and show the plant is the best choice. So, a fancy computer program ran 50 different simulations. Dimitry says all concluded the plant is necessary.    

Not so fast, says Margrethe Kearney of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Kearney says if a fancy computer program is told to maximize renewables, and maximize programs that reduce demand for electricity, the two combined beat out the natural gas plant.

“Everything that our experts ran shows that, yes, it's feasible, absolutely, it's cost effective,” Kearney says.

Kearney thinks DTE is stuck in an old mind set, one that viewed natural gas as a necessary bridge to replace coal until renewables are ready for prime time.

“Renewables are a legitimate available resource, and by not recognizing that, we're keeping Michigan in the dark ages,” says Kearney.

She adds that, at the very least, DTE could build a smaller plant or defer building one to give alternatives time to develop. 

But she thinks there's a disincentive for DTE Energy to do that, because the utility doesn't pay for the plant; rather, its customers do.

“It's not just that the customers pay for it,” Kearney says. “Part of what the customers are paying is a return on that investment, so DTE is going to make around 10% in profit on that investment, DTE shareholders.”

It's worth noting that staff at the Michigan Public Service Commission also concluded DTE Energy's analysis was poorly done. The kicker? Timing worked in the utility's favor.

DTE asked for permission to build a new plant four months before new guidance for staff went into effect. That guidance is based on the state's new energy laws.

The staff report reluctantly recommends DTE receive approval for its natural gas plant, but it says the new guidance would likely have kicked it to the curb.

Commissioners will have the final say, and they'll issue a decision by April 27th.