Alert lifted at midnight after energy use drops 10%

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Jan. 31, 2019, press conference in the Michigan Emergency Operations Center I Michael Gerstein

State reps. spar on social media over calls to conserve energy

Less than a day ago, one of the Michigan’s two largest utility companies considered shutting off heat at some homes during the coldest day since 1994. 

General Motors agreed to freeze production until Friday after a fire at one of the utility company’s main natural gas storage fields made fuel inaccessible.

But it wasn’t enough. Consumers Energy warned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that the issue could lead to shutoffs unless people voluntarily reduced their consumption. So the governor activated the emergency alert system to urge residents to set thermostats to at least 65 degrees.

That alert prompted some state lawmakers to complain over calls to conserve energy.

But it apparently worked. After the emergency alerts, Consumers’ system has already seen a 10 percent reduction in energy usage. Without the voluntary reductions, some people might have lost heat during record-breaking sub-zero temperatures.

Consumers Energy is now saying customers can set their thermostats back to the temperature they prefer by midnight Thursday.

“In our 130 years, we’ve never experienced this kind of demand or these kind of temperatures,” said Patti Poppe, President and CEO of CMS Energy and Consumers Energy, at a press conference Thursday morning. “However we could not overcome the failure of our equipment as a result of the fire at our largest storage and delivery facility.”

A Domino’s Pizza delivery hurtles past Lansing City Hall, which closed for the day, Jan. 28, 2019 | Michael Gerstein

Despite having enough natural gas on reserve to meet peak demands during record-breaking cold weather in the Midwest, the company’s delivery had been crippled by damage.

A fire at the company’s Ray Compressor Station in Macomb County made natural gas inaccessible that’s used to keep people’s homes, businesses, hospitals and nursing homes warm while Michigan was under a state of emergency due to the extreme cold.

The facility provides roughly 64 percent of the company’s natural gas supply to Michigan residents. As a result, Poppe and Whitmer asked residents to turn down their thermostats to 65 degrees or lower until Friday.

Hemlock Semiconductor Operations, a Saginaw County-based company which manufactures materials for solar panels and semiconductors powering smartphones and other electronics, said Thursday that it had “significantly cut” its natural gas and electricity use in response to the frigid weather.

In a rare move, the National Security Council even chimed in last night on the severity of the issue.

Governor’s actions

Whitmer held a press conference Thursday morning and thanked people for heading the call to conserve energy.

“Because everyone pitched in and did that, we made it through the night,” Whitmer said. 

The governor then asked Michiganders to keep their heat lower until midday Friday. Since then, Consumers Energy issued an “all clear” as of midnight Thursday.

State of Michigan offices will reopen on Friday after being closed for Wednesday, Thursday and part of Monday. Lansing Mayor Andy Schor announced today that the snow emergency would be lifted at midnight Thursday.

On a typical winter day in Michigan, residents will consume roughly 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas. But on Wednesday, Consumers Energy was seeing a demand of 3.3 billion cubic feet and projecting a 3.7 billion cubic foot demand this morning, Poppe said.

MDOT Director Paul Ajegba in an interview at the state’s emergency operations center I Michael Gerstein

Consumers has “the authority to enforce curtailment and will take actions to do so if necessary to protect the service of our residential customers,” said company spokeswoman Katie Carey.

Temperatures have begun to rise slightly, but are still at record lows.

“This is not over until noon tomorrow, so we are asking that people continue to keep their thermostats down,” Whitmer said.

That’s the short-term plan to make it through the current cold snap, until temperatures are expected to climb to the 40s and 50s in some parts of the Lower Peninsula, according figures from Jim Maczko with the National Weather Service.

But Whitmer said she will also be considering the state’s emergency response preparedness to avoid future situations like this.

The new Democratic governor said it’s “a concern” that a majority of Consumers’ natural gas supply flows through a single facility, endangering the rest of the state’s supply in the rare event that facility goes offline. Michigan is now enduring that rare event.

Michigan Emergency Operations Center during the record-breaking 2019 polar vortex | Michael Gerstein

“Well, that’s a concern that I have, certainly,” Whitmer said. “I’m also concerned that we are seeing climate change and we are seeing temperatures and fluctuations like none of us have seen before I don’t believe that it’s going to have a trajectory other than what we’ve seen. And so we’ve got to be prepared and anticipate ensuring that our production is safe and our deliverability is dependable and that we’ve got what we need to navigate when these increasingly frequent weather patterns happen.”

Whitmer also announced Thursday she will be asking the Michigan Public Service Commission to review the state’s readiness for future energy emergencies.

Former House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) also questioned how the Public Service Commission is “holding utilities accountable” and what “red flags” there might have regarding Consumers’ gas distribution.

Lawmakers squabble

But some are meeting the appeals to conserve energy with resistance on social media. Although most state lawmakers have been silent on Twitter, at least two House representatives grumbled about calls to reduce thermostats.

“Really … I’m so sorry; black people don’t have their heat on 65 in regular weather! #NotGonnaHappen!” tweeted state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit).

Another lawmaker, Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), questioned the use of the emergency alert system — a comment that faced immediate backlash from a Democratic colleague.

“Who the hell authorized the emergency alert network at 10:30 p.m. for a private company?” Beau LaFave tweeted.

Maybe a better question is how does a person get elected to a state position and then not give a shit about thousands of Michiganders and their danger of freezing to death if the gas supply empties?” said Rep. Terry Sabo (D-Muskegon).

Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) had a general Facebook post expressing little patience for those complaining about turning down their the thermostat.

Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein covers the governor’s office, criminal justice and the environment. Before that, he wrote about state government and politics for the Detroit News, the Associated Press and MIRS News and won a Society of Professional Journalism award for open government reporting. He studied philosophy at Michigan State University, where he wrote for both The State News and Capital News Service. He began his journalism career freelancing for The Sturgis Journal, his hometown paper.

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