News Story

Regulator: Utility Could Improve On Being Open And Transparent

Key industry stakeholders no-shows at meetings on utility’s power source overhaul

Consumers Energy submitted a proposal to state regulators in June for decommissioning most of its coal, gas and nuclear power plants, and replacing much of this generation capacity with thousands of acres of solar arrays. Before doing so, Michigan's second-largest utility held meetings with environmental groups, attorneys, state officials, and interests connected to a cogeneration natural gas plant in Midland.

In two meetings with groups the utility dubbed “key stakeholders,” the Jackson-based company received input from attendees who included numerous longtime advocates of replacing coal, gas and nuclear power with renewable energy sources. The list of attendees did not, however, include many of Michigan’s industrial stakeholders that often participate in such proceedings.

The utility said in filings with state regulators that invitations to the meetings were limited to interests that had intervened in its most-recent regulatory proceedings, as well as groups that requested an invitation.

James Ault is the president of the Michigan Electric and Gas Association, a group of investor owned utilities in the state. He said in an email that the Michigan Manufacturers Association, the Michigan Chemistry Council, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, and the Small Business Association of Michigan “often participate in state energy policy discussions,” but none were present at the recent meetings.

“I understand the [planning] process included a general solicitation seeking input from interested members of the general public as well as targeted discussions with key interested parties,” Ault said. “The question becomes whether these organizations were specifically invited and declined to participate, missed the public solicitation, or should have been asked individually to participate.”

The meetings also didn't have representatives of fossil fuel or nuclear energy interests, such as the American Gas Association or the Nuclear Energy Institute, with the exception of parties with an interest in the Midland natural gas plant.

In a document reviewing its involvement with stakeholders, Consumers Energy said the meetings gave it the ability to attain “diversity in thought on future outlooks.”

John Freeman, executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, said in a phone interview that Consumers Energy's planning process allows for input from anyone.

“The stakeholder process presents an opportunity for multiple parties, who are interested, to comment on Consumers’ proposal. If they feel they have better suggestions, it allows for that input. Ultimately the [Michigan Public Service Commission] will weigh all of the input and decide on what Consumers has presented,” Freeman said.

Freeman added: “Anybody in the public can go on the e-docket and see every document that’s been submitted. And to become an intervenor, you have to jump through a few hoops, but it’s not that difficult, relatively speaking.”

The MPSC, which regulates the state’s electricity and natural gas utilities, also set the guidelines for Consumers Energy to follow. Those guidelines encourage its stakeholder consultation process to be “open and transparent” and allow for “groups, regardless of their interests, to be involved.”

In a recent report, the MPSC suggested that Consumers Energy could “improve its process for collecting comments by offering additional mediums for stakeholder engagement.”

Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, is concerned about the makeup of the key stakeholder groups.

“When [Consumers Energy] relies on the direct guidance of activist environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council to ‘help reshape Michigan’s energy future,’ customers and regulators should start asking some tough questions,” Hayes said in an email statement. “When the utility and their stakeholders decide to wholly abandon reliable baseload generation sources like nuclear and coal, and to cut about half of their use of natural gas, while also committing to spend billions on more than 6 GW (gigawatts) of solar in Michigan, the entire state needs to start going over the entire planning process and planning documents with a fine-toothed comb.”

In 2016 the Union of Concerned Scientists claimed that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was a "special interest group that peddles disinformation about climate science." The Union of Concerned Scientists embarked on a campaign to pressure supporters of ALEC to no longer support it. The American Legislative Exchange Council works with state legislators to advance free-market, limited-government principles.

The Sierra Club environmental organization opposes the use of natural gas, coal and nuclear power. Those three energy sources were responsible for 91 percent of the electricity generated in Michigan in 2016.

The Sierra Club files a lawsuit against every coal plant in America seeking a permit.

Consumers Energy spokesperson Katie Carey called the group of stakeholders “bipartisan and comprehensive.”

“When developing our [integrated resource plan], we gathered input from a bipartisan and comprehensive group of internal and external stakeholders, including customers, who told us they care deeply about how we handle issues such as air quality, water management and greenhouse gas emissions. The IRP filing represents a forward-looking strategy that shows we care about people, the planet and Michigan’s economic prosperity,” Carey said in an email statement.

The following organizations were included on the invitation and attendee list for Consumers Energy’s technical workshops for key stakeholders in the months before the company submitted its June 2018 planning document to the state:

  • Clark Hill — ABATE
  • Fraser Law-HSC
  • Environmental Law
  • Dykema law firm
  • Varnum Law
  • Environmental Law & Policy Center
  • National Resources Defense Council
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Sierra Club
  • Michigan Environmental Council
  • Invenergy LLC
  • Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
  • Counsel for Attorney General Bill Schuette
  • Michigan Public Service Commission
  • Michigan Agency for Energy
  • Midland Cogeneration Venture
  • Midland Cogeneration Venture Limited Partnership
  • Midland Cogeneration Association