by Kyle Davidson, Michigan Advance
July 26, 2023
Clean energy and environmental activists gathered Tuesday at a webinar to break down a recent settlement changing how DTE Energy will operate over the next 20 years.
The energy company announced on July 12 that it reached a settlement with 21 organizations from across Michigan, agreeing to accelerate its transition to clean energy while providing financial support to programs benefiting low-income customers.
While DTE and the coalition of environmental justice, clean energy and consumer advocates have each agreed to the settlement, the agreement must still be approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) — the organization that oversees the state’s energy and telecommunications companies.
The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) is set to meet at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, where it is expected to review the settlement.
During the webinar, members of the organizations who negotiated the settlement compared the agreement to DTE’s initial plan for future operations, known as an integrated resource plan.
Energy companies are required to submit a new integrated resource plan every five years, outlining how they will provide energy to customers, the types of power plants that will be used and built, and their investments in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency programs.
DTE’s most recent plan was submitted as an update to their plan from 2019, outlining the company’s operational plans for the next 20 years.
Andrew Sarpolis, Michigan field manager for the Sierra Club, said these plans have a broad impact on customers paying for energy and people concerned about the environment.
“[The plan] determines how much we’re going to pay for electricity, how utilities will spend, the money we pay, and how much pollution is going to result from those strategies,” Sarpolis said.
While the public can weigh in on these plans, there are minimal requirements for utility companies to reach out to impacted communities, Sarpolis said.
In response to the most recent integrated resource plan, hundreds of residents attended Michigan Public Service Commission meetings and 2,000 people sent public comments to the commission DTE prioritize environmental justice and energy equity, cease its use of fossil fuels and improve funding and access to its clean energy programs.
While breaking down highlights of the settlement, the panelists centered the early retirement of DTE’s Monroe Coal Plant as one the biggest wins. While DTE originally planned to retire the plant in 2035, the company will instead retire its coal plants by 2032 as part of the settlement.
“Moving that up by three years is a significant reduction in [carbon dioxide] emissions and emissions in harmful air pollutants like nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide,” said Shannon Fisk, the director of state electric sector advocacy for Earthjustice and one of the attorneys involved in this proceeding.
By retiring the plant three years early, it will emit 24 millions less tons of carbon dioxide, 6000 less tons of sulfur dioxide and 7000 less tons of nitrogen oxides, Sarpolis said.
The panelists highlighted other environmental positives in the agreement, including accelerating its clean energy efforts, and expanding the company’s cap on distributed generation to 6% of its average yearly peak load. Under current state law, DTE is only required to purchase 1% of its average yearly peak load from customers generating their own energy.
The company will also donate $38 million with $30 million for energy assistance and $8 million to support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for low-income customers.
Fisk said the plan also requires DTE to retire its River Rouge gas-fired peaking plant, which is used to provide energy during peak demand for electricity. While the River Rouge plant would be retired next year under the settlement, DTE would also be required to study the impact and potential retirement of three additional gas-fired peaking plants in environmental justice communities for its next Integrated Resource Plan, which the company must file by December 2026.
As far as exclusions from the settlement, panelists said the agreement did not include efforts to address energy reliability or affordability.
“I think it’s important for us all to be clear that settlement deals are deals and DTE did get something in this deal,” said Jackson Koeppel, an expert witness in the settlement case for Soulardarity and We Want Green Too, two metro Detroit-based nonprofits that support clean energy efforts.
While the MPSC still needs to approve the settlement, holding utilities accountable is an important job for the Legislature, Koeppel said.
“The Legislature need to keep working for a just energy future for everyone. What we accomplished here in settlement does some things for those of us impacted by DTE’s choices,” Koeppel said.
“What we need at a higher level is legislative action rules and standards that move everyone in the same direction so we don’t have to negotiate these things piecemeal with utilities in confidentially bounded settlement processes,” he said.
Koeppel listed affordability, equity and establishing climate standards as areas in need of policy work.
In March, Michigan Senate Democrats introduced a package of bills that included efforts to establish a clean energy standard which included nuclear energy, create plans to phase out coal fired power plants by 2030, and expanding the purview of the Michigan Public Service Commission to allow them to consider factors like climate, health, equity and affordability when evaluating the integrated resource plans of electrical utilities.
Lawmakers have also introduced bipartisan efforts to enable consumers to create independently-owned community solar projects, alongside a number of other Democratic bills including providing rebates to encourage battery storage and solar energy, and working to implement Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan.
While the Integrated Resource Plan is a good pathway, Fisk said advocates will continue to work to ensure DTE commits to a clean energy transition.
“Are we, the commission, state policymakers going to keep DTE on that pathway and make sure they actually follow through on the clean energy transition, and frankly, accelerate beyond what is in this settlement?” Fisk said.
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