Sustainable State of Mind

The fourth-largest regulated gas and electric utility in the United States is now also one of the largest renewable-energy providers in the state of Michigan

When Michigan’s Clean, Renewable, and Efficient Energy Act was signed into law on October 6, 2008, the state’s public utilities got to work, seeking to meet the requirement that 10 percent of the energy they supply comes from renewable sources by 2015. The road wasn’t easy, but Consumers Energy succeeded a year ahead of schedule.

Based in Jackson, Michigan, Consumers Energy, which is CMS Energy’s principal subsidiary, is the fourth-largest regulated gas and electric utility in the United States. With an array of its own generation facilities, it serves every county in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and a total of 6.5 million residents.

Consumers Energy has long been one step ahead, thanks to its diversified portfolio of generation facilities. Having an array of coal and natural-gas plants, hydroelectric dams, and wind farms, as well as one of the largest pumped-storage facilities in the world, gives the utility what Catherine Reynolds, senior vice president and general counsel, calls a balanced portfolio of generation supply. “If coal or gas prices rise, our balanced energy portfolio helps assure affordable prices for our customers,” she says.

However, recent environmental regulations and renewables requirements have posed challenges for the industry. “Utilities have changed their supply structure, moving away from coal to more gas plants and renewables, like solar and wind,” Reynolds says. “We really embraced the renewables requirement, and ensured we had a plan in place right away.”

Consumers Energy has kept pace with the Clean, Renewable, and Efficient Energy Act by building two wind farms. The first, the 100-megawatt Lakewinds Energy Park, located in western Michigan near Ludington, has been operational since 2012. The second, the 105-megawatt Crosswinds Energy Park, located in eastern Michigan, will be operational at the end of 2014. “Those two wind farms, along with purchases we make from renewable-energy suppliers, will help us meet Michigan’s renewable-energy requirements ahead of schedule,” Reynolds says.

Much thought, planning, and work were required for the wind-farm development. Designs for wind farms must meet requirements for local zoning, permitting, and building, as well as comply with applicable federal, state, and local requirements to protect human health and the environment. When considering the placement of the Lakewinds Energy Park, Consumers Energy undertook two years of wildlife studies based on recommendations from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. These studies looked at the use of the area by short ear owls and bald eagles, the Indiana bat (an endangered species), and the eastern pipistrelle (a species of special concern in Michigan), as well as breeding and migration patterns. Later, in designing the Crosswinds Energy Park, Consumers Energy conducted a series of studies on shadow flicker and background sound levels in the proposed project area, and with the completion of those studies, selected a wind turbine best suited to maximizing generating capacity while minimizing sound levels and shadow flicker.

Renewable energy is being driven by more than state mandates; it’s also being driven by consumer demand. “Many customers want cleaner energy, particularly business customers, because being sustainable is part of their branding,” says Reynolds, who notes that focusing on the customer has been a big initiative at Consumers Energy, especially over the past several years. “We want to make sure we’re listening to customers and providing the value they want, not what we think they want.”

Consumers Energy’s focus on renewable energy shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that it was recently ranked number one for sustainability among its peers in a worldwide survey by Sustainalytics, a leading global research firm—and its commitment to the communities in which it serves as well as the state of Michigan. To support the Michigan economy, which is rebounding, the utility has partnered with economic-development organizations to attract new businesses to the state.

Consumers Energy is also part of an initiative called Pure Michigan Business Connect, under which it has committed to spending an additional $1 billion on Michigan goods and service. That kind of commitment really makes a difference, not just to the company, but also to the utility’s customers and to the state. “Many people don’t realize that utilities are very capital intensive,” Reynolds says. “Consumers Energy is the second largest investor in the state. Our employees are proud to work for a company that is focused on the environment, our customers, and the communities we serve here in Michigan.”