AP NEWS

Appeal curbs heat use by 10 percent in Michigan amid cold

February 1, 2019
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CORRECTS SPELLING OF LAST NAME TO POPPE INSTEAD OF POPE - Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe speaks during a news conference in Jackson, Mich., on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. The news conference was held to address the natural gas shortage caused by a fire in cold temperatures. (Mary Lewandowski/Jackson Citizen Patriot via AP)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Efforts to conserve heat in Michigan during the extreme cold reduced usage by 10 percent following a fire at a major natural gas facility, stabilizing Consumers Energy’s ability to supply houses and other critical buildings, officials said Thursday.

The utility, the state’s largest supplier of natural gas, asked its 1.7 million customers and millions of others to continue to set their thermostats at 65 degrees (18 degrees Celsius) or lower until midnight Thursday — 62 degrees if they are away from home for more than five hours.

The company first made the request Wednesday afternoon. The state police later sent a late-night emergency alert to the entire Lower Peninsula, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer consulted with emergency management staff and Consumers Energy leaders. Auto plants and other big customers shut down or limited operations due to the disruption in supply. Whitmer said she would ask state regulators to assess the supply and delivery of natural gas, electricity and propane by July 1.

“In our 130 years, we’ve never experienced this kind of demand or these kinds of temperatures,” said CEO Patti Poppe. She said at a news conference that the Jackson-based utility had been prepared to supply more natural gas due to the frigid weather until Wednesday’s fire at its largest storage and distribution facility, in suburban Detroit.

“We are disappointed that our system was unable to serve at full capacity,” she said. “However, we are extraordinarily grateful for the efforts that you took and the actions and your response to our call.”

The company, Poppe said, was “cautiously optimistic” that its system had stabilized. The fire remained under investigation.

The appeal to reduce heat drew both praise and criticism on social media, with some people saying they were happy to do their part and others expressing frustration — including with the timing of the alert that went to cellphones.

“Who authorized the emergency alert network at 10:30 at night?” Republican Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain said on Facebook and Twitter.

Whitmer defended the move, saying it was “very critical” to act quickly.

“We are not done,” she said during a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center near Lansing. “This is not over until tomorrow.”

Whitmer said she was concerned that nearly two-thirds of Consumers Energy’s natural gas is distributed from its station in Macomb County in peak periods.

“I am also concerned that we are seeing climate change, and we are seeing temperatures and fluctuations like none we’ve seen before,” she said. “I don’t believe that it’s going to have a trajectory other than what we’ve seen. So we’ve got to be prepared.”

On a typical winter day, Poppe said, demand hits about 2.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas. It peaked at 3.3 billion on Wednesday — topping the previous record of 3 billion — and was expected to rise to 3.7 billion on Thursday. When people voluntarily curtailed their use, demand was closer to 3.3 billion, she said.

Poppe urged all natural gas customers, not just those served by Consumers Energy, to lower their thermostat to 65 degrees, because the distribution network is interconnected.

“Every Michigander who turned down that thermostat could make a difference to the total system,” she said.

DTE Energy, meanwhile, asked Michigan customers to help “safeguard the reliability of the regional energy grid” amid the cold by voluntarily reducing electricity use. Suggested steps include lowering the thermostat by several degrees and minimizing the use of appliances such as washers, dryers and ovens.

“While DTE’s plants are running well, our system is connected to energy grids in other states and Canada that are experiencing issues due to the extreme weather,” Christy Wicke, executive director, Generation Optimization, said in a statement.

State Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said that as of Thursday morning, the agency had handled more than 50 emergency calls related to residents without heat in 26 counties. Most were for propane fills. In one case, Luther Lovell, DHHS director for Wexford and Missaukee counties south of Traverse City, drove water to an elderly couple whose pipes froze.

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