The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 22, 2016

Wind energy fanning coal plant retirements

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

JACKSON - Consumers Energy shuttered seven of its oldest coal-burning units as of April 15 after serving Michigan for more than 60 years.

Collectively, the plants – affectionately nicknamed by the utility as the “Classic Seven” – were capable of generating nearly 1,000 megawatts of electricity. The shutdown of the coal burners is being made possible by the steady incursion of renewable sources into the state's energy marketplace.

The plants carry plenty of affection from the building trades, too. The utility has been winding down work at the plants in recent years as they have approached retirement, but over the decades, the power plants have been steady employers for Hardhats.

"Consumers Energy spends $1 billion to $2 billion every year on plant modifications, installation, repair and maintenance," said Rich Kasper, director of construction for Consumers Energy. "Almost all that money goes to union labor."

The coal units being retired this month by Consumers Energy includes:
*B.C. Cobb Units 4 and 5, Muskegon, 320 megawatts (MW).
*J.C.Weadock 7 and 8, Hampton Twp. (Bay Co.), 310 MW.
*J.R. Whiting 1, 2 and 3, Luna Pier, (Monroe Co.) 328 MW.

DTE Energy is also closing two coal-burning units this year, both at their Trenton Channel Power Plant. Only one other utility in the U.S. is retiring a higher percentage of its coal generation than Consumers Energy.

“We honor the men and women that have worked at our Classic Seven coal plants, which have powered Michigan’s industrial growth, kept the lights on in our homes, and made amazing human and business contributions to their host communities,” said Dan Malone, senior vice president of energy resources for Consumers Energy.

“These plants have a long track record of running safely, productively and efficiently. In fact, Whiting’s Unit 3 recently set a company record by operating continuously for 679 consecutive days, the sixth longest run for a U.S. power plant,” added Malone. He noted the company is working to accommodate placement of interested employees at other Consumers Energy sites.

Kasper told delegates to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's Legislative Conference last month that the closings come "with a heavy heart." The main reasons for the permanent shutdown of the plants: the expansion of wind energy sources. According to the Michigan Public Service Commission, windmills now generate more than 1,500 megawatts of power in Michigan, which amounts to about 70 percent of the total renewable energy created in the state.

"Wind has had a major impact," Kasper told delegates. "Of course the problem with (wind) is that you don't know when you will have it, but the grid has enough electricity. I can't believe I'm saying that."

According to the state Public Service Commission, other renewable sources of power in the state come from hydroelectric (15 percent) biomass (13 percent), landfill gas (6 percent), municipal solid waste (3 percent) and solar (one percent).

“Michigan’s steady progress toward reaching – and exceeding – the 10-percent-by-2015 renewable portfolio standard shows the state’s commitment to a diversified resource base,” said MPSC Chairman Sally Talberg. “Even more encouraging is the continued downward price trend of renewable energy contracts, the last few of which are less than any new electric generation."

Consumers Energy has pointed out that shutting down seven of its 12 coal plants does not mean the utility is abandoning the state, and the moves have their benefits. From an environmental perspective, the closures will reduce the utility's carbon footprint by 25 percent, reduce air emissions by 40 percent, and water usage by 40 percent.

“We purchased the Jackson Gas Plant at one-quarter the cost of a new plant to replace the power from the Classic Seven and continue to invest in wind and other renewable energy sources," said Malone. "This ensures Consumers Energy has the power necessary to serve its customers affordably and reliably, with cleaner sources of energy.

“However, significant concerns remain about the ability of out-of-state energy marketers to serve their customers in Michigan’s partially deregulated market. As Michigan and other Midwestern states shut down their coal plants, the surplus power on which these marketers rely to meet their customers’ needs will dry up,” he added.

Kasper pointed out to the trades that significant work is still ongoing at the utility's Karn and Campbell plants, at compressor stations in St. Clair and Washtenaw counties, and on the utility's 1,600 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines.

"We have 1,800 of your people working in just my department," he told building trades delegates. "Consumers Energy says thanks to the building trades. We can't make it without you."