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Fire at Consumers Energy facility threatens heat for 1.8 million

Themostat set to 65 degrees.
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

Update: Thursday, January 31 at 4:33 p.m.

Consumers Energy says customers should be able to dial up the thermostat if they want, beginning at 10:00 a.m. Friday.

Less frigid weather means less of a need to conserve natural gas after a Wednesday fire at a major gas compressor station.

But the utility still does not know what caused the fire.  An investigation continues.

Until the cause is known, Consumers Energy says it will not restart all three plants at the station.  Currently, it has one plant in operation.

Update: Wednesday, January 30 at 11 p.m.

Consumers Energy has issued an urgent appeal to its natural gas customers in southeast Michigan to turn down the thermostat to 65 degrees or lower to conserve gas, after a fire Wednesday morning shut down its compressor station in Macomb County.

Cell phones chimed with an emergency alert around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, with a message from Consumers Energy: "Due to extreme temps, Consumers asks everyone to lower their heat to 65 or less through Fri."

Governor Gretchen Whitmer echoed that request in a video posted on her Facebook page, and Consumers Energy President and CEO, Patti Poppe, also released a video with an urgent request for help reducing demand.

"I need to ask you to take action tonight," Poppe says in the video, filmed at the utility's Jackson natural gas control center.  "The forecast for tomorrow is not good.  It's going to be colder tomorrow than it was today."

Poppe urged customers to lower the heat in their homes as much as possible, "so that we can deliver enough gas for everyone to have some heat, and to protect our most critical facilities like hospitals and senior citizens' homes."

General Motors agreed to shut down eleven facilities in Flint, Lansing, and Orion Township, as well as asking thousands of workers at the Warren Tech Center to work from home through at least Friday.

Ford Motor Company lowered the temperature in its Livonia Transmission Plant and Van Dyke Transmission Plant to minimum levels, according to a spokeswoman, and the company also stopped heat treatment processes at Sterling Axle Plant, as well as the paint process at Michigan Assembly.

Other big commercial users also closed plants or reduced natural gas usage.

"But it is not enough," Poppe said.  "No one can do everything, but everyone can do something, and I need you to take action, right now."

Original post: Wednesday, January 30, 7:15 p.m. 

Consumers officials say voluntary conservation through Friday, combined with drawing more gas from its storage fields and from out of state, should ensure there is enough natural gas available during the extreme cold snap and following a fire at a key compressor station.

The fire broke out about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Consumers Energy Vice President of Operations Garrick Rochow says by noon, customers began to respond to the request for conservation.  

"It's making a difference on our system," he says. "Ensuring out of an abundance of caution that everyone's home is safe and warm tonight."

The cause of the fire is not known yet. Consumers Energy officials say an automated system immediately shut down the supply of natural gas to the plant where the fire broke out, and by 3 p.m., all the remaining natural gas in the pipes in the plant had been vented and burned off.

Meanwhile, DTE Energy is also asking customers to turn down the thermostat, and use less energy for lighting and appliances.

The utility says the spike in demand for energy is placing stress on the Midwest grid.

The Michigan Public Service Commission says all state of Michigan owned facilities in the Lower Peninsula are lowering their thermostats by five degrees to lessen the burden on the natural gas supply.

Editor's note: Both DTE Energy and Consumers Energy are corporate sponsors of Michigan Radio.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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