Consumers Energy energizes drive to electric cars and renewables

Published on October 01, 2018 by Hil Anderson

Patti Poppe

Michigan’s Consumers Energy is stepping on the pedal in its move toward more electric vehicles (EVs) and increased renewable energy in the birthplace of the automobile.

With President and CEO Patti Poppe behind the wheel, CMS Energy and its Consumers Energy dvision, has committed itself to replace its coal-fired generation by 2040 while, at the same time, teaming up with another Michigan icon, General Motors. The partnership is intended to stoke a jump in the number of electric vehicles that are traveling the roads and plugging into a cleaner energy grid.

“Electric vehicles are ready for the fast lane, and Consumers Energy wants to support this technology for the good of Michigan and the good of our planet,” Poppe said recently. “Electric vehicles will reduce our carbon footprint while supporting our company’s Clean Energy Plan to cut carbon emissions from our power plants in the next two decades.”

Poppe made her remarks Sept. 25 when Consumers announced it would be replacing more than 100 of its gasoline-fueled company cars with electric vehicles over the next five years and was also working with GM on technology to make it easier for motorists to charge EVs at home. The early days of EVs featured periods of several hours to recharge the vehicle’s battery, but current technology reduced waiting to about four hours, perfect for the down time before the dawn of a new work day.

Better Now Than Later
Committing to both increasing renewables and expanding demand at the same time might appear to be on the challenging side, but to Poppe, it’s more adapting to changing times and getting Consumers Energy’s ducks lined up before change is forced on them. The utility industry has largely committed to weening itself from coal in response to climate change in the same time frame as electric cars gain momentum.

“Last year, the Edison Electric Institute projected that up to 7 million electric vehicles will travel on U.S. roads by 2025,” Poppe told Daily Energy Insider. “So, it is up to us to support the transition to electric vehicles by supporting charging stations at home and on the road that will make electric vehicle ownership more practical and attractive.”

“We believe it will ultimately be more cost effective to be proactive in promoting the installation of infrastructure at points that work for both customers and the grid, rather than waiting and being forced to be reactive,” she said.

The Golden Hours
There is an opportunity in the overnight hours for Consumers to accommodate a larger fleet of EVs and at the same time ramping up demand in the pre-dawn hours when electricity consumption is relatively low. The key is a home EV charging system that kicks on automatically while their owners are asleep. Consumers also offers a special rate to encourage overnight charging of about half the rate charged during peak hours.

Consumers’ partnership with GM includes testing new home-charging technology and offering homeowners a rebate for installing chargers in their garages. “Home charging is here today and works for electric vehicle owners,” said Poppe. “Our next step is to make it easier for vehicle owners to take advantage of smart charging.”

Consumers and GM see the field as cleared for a potential boom in EVs in the Great Lakes State. Along with more robust charging technology, the overall performance of EVs is steadily improving and making them more appealing to the car-buying public.

Here Comes the Sun
Adding a growing fleet of EVs to the demand side is not expected to strain Consumers’ generation resources even after the retirement of seven coal power plants in 2016. Consumers is adding 5,000 megawatts of solar capacity in the next decade – the 24-MW Delta Solar project near Lansing, the largest tracking solar array in Michigan, became operational in August and can provide power for 4,200 homes.

Consumers will also continue to rely heavily on natural gas for both power generation and for heating during the state’s long and gloomy winters. While prices paid to the new renewable energy operators will have to be worked out individually, gas prices look stable for the foreseeable future. “We will continue to operate two Michigan plants and provide natural gas as a heating source to over 1.8 million homes and businesses,” said Poppe. “Our projections show that natural gas should continue to be an affordable source of fuel.”

Government regulators will also have an impact on the success of renewable energy in Michigan. The Trump administration stirred the pot earlier this year by citing grid reliability when calling for subsidies to keep nuclear and coal plants slated for decommissioning online. In addition, state regulators must balance the higher costs of generating renewable energy compared to larger coal and gas plants.

On that final point, Consumers sees its path to a future of less carbon as a worthy goal that customers and regulators will embrace. “Michigan’s delegation in Washington and our state lawmakers have shown keen interest in electric vehicles because they see the benefits for our state and its prosperity,” Poppe said. “We just need to continue to keep the lines of communication open with our state and federal policymakers.”