Consumers Energy President and CEO Patti Poppe made an appearance at the Grand Rapids Econ Club last week to showcase the company’s recent work in the renewable energy sector and also to show off the capabilities of renewable energy through Circuit West.
Consumers Energy and Rockford Construction announced Circuit West in 2017, according to a previous Business Journal report. Poppe said Rockford Construction approached Consumers early on about being involved in the development of Circuit West on Grand Rapids’ West Side.
“We knew that Rockford had a big idea about what could happen in that neighborhood,” Poppe said, “and we immediately wanted to be part of that. We are leaders in clean and renewable energy. We’re leaders in new energy technologies, and we were so excited to find partners who wanted to demonstrate that in a very concrete, real way.
The project is a pilot in energy sustainability, utilizing solar panels, utility battery storage and electric vehicle charging stations, as well as extra bandwidth for communications and internet, in a neighborhood environment.
The project is being implemented in an approximately 10-block area of the West Side, including the Bridge Street Market that Rockford Construction completed earlier this year.
Symbolizing its interest in the West Side, Consumers announced in March its intent to build a Grand Rapids “headquarters” in Circuit West at 501 Alabama St. NW, as the Business Journal previously reported, and Poppe said the company now plans to break ground late in the first quarter 2019.
“We’re very excited about being in the heart of Grand Rapids,” Poppe said. “We have a service center here in Grand Rapids today … that’s where all of our line workers and our teams come and dispatch out to serve customers.”
Consumers plans to relocate all of its customer service and public affairs staff from the service center at 4000 Clay Ave. SW to the Circuit West headquarters once it’s complete.
“They’re so customer facing,” Poppe said. “It’ll be great to be sitting right near our customers.”
Even though Consumers is moving a large percentage of its workforce — approximately 200 employees — to downtown Grand Rapids, the company’s official corporate headquarters will remain in Jackson.
Recently, Consumers installed the Circuit West battery facility near Rockford Construction’s headquarters. The facility houses a 500-kilowatt-hour battery, enough to power a few hundred homes.
The Circuit West battery is similar but smaller in scale to the Consumers battery facility on Western Michigan University’s Parkview Campus in Kalamazoo. The larger battery facility houses a one-megawatt-hour battery that could store enough energy to power 1,000 homes at any time.
“We’re trying all sorts of different places where we can test different versions of battery storage, and (Circuit West) is a great application, just to see if it does as promised,” Poppe said.
Battery storage is important to making renewable energy like wind and solar accessible to customers at the same time they want it, Poppe said. Because it stores the energy produced by these means, customers’ ability to access it doesn’t depend on whether the wind is blowing or the sun is out.
Comparatively, the energy from a base load coal plant is available whenever customers want it, but the downside, Poppe said, is it’s also available whenever customers don’t want it, leaving excess power running.
“Renewables are more modular. They’re more closely matched to demand,” Poppe said. “It has no emissions — no fuel. It ends up being lower cost.”
Currently, storage technology has a high price up front, but Poppe said she believes the cost will curve downward as it has for renewables like wind and solar, and she wants Consumers to be at the forefront of that innovation.
“For a long time, we trained people that clean energy was more expensive, and it just isn’t true anymore,” Poppe said. “We actually have access to low-cost, cleaner energy resources today, and we’re making that transition on behalf of Michigan.”
Consumers’ parent company, CMS Energy Corp., was ranked No. 9 of Newsweek’s Top 10 green companies for 2017. CMS received an overall “green score” of 68.8 percent, according to Newsweek.
Poppe also drew attention to Consumers’ work to meet its goal for zero coal use by 2040. The Business Journal previously reported the utility had filed an Integrated Resource Plan in June to the Michigan Public Service Commission, detailing its switch to renewable energy.
By 2040, Consumers also plans to run about 40 to 45 percent renewable energy, Poppe said. The company still will maintain two natural gas facilities in Zeeland and Jackson.
Consumers also has reduced its carbon emissions by 38 percent since 2005, with the goal to reduce emissions by 90 percent by 2040. To date, Consumers has closed seven of the 12 coal-fueled plants it has in its portfolio.
“We’re not just making promises about what we’re going to do,” Poppe said. “These are promises kept.”
Consumers doesn’t just have a role in turning over utilities to renewable energy. The company entered into a pilot program with General Motors in November to test new technology that allows electric vehicle owners to charge their vehicles at home and delay charging to start until overnight hours.
Poppe argued, as long as electric vehicles are charged any time other than during times of peak energy demand, Michigan will have to add very little infrastructure to accommodate their use.
Poppe said peak energy demand happens usually during the hottest days of the summer when residential air conditioning drives a huge spike in usage.
“Given that, if you utilize existing assets more fully, our transformers, power generation stations, substations, all of our infrastructure would be more fully utilized off-peak,” Poppe said. “That means the unit cost of electricity goes down.”
Consumers also is developing a $7.5-million effort over three years to encourage the development of electric vehicle charging stations across Michigan, including rebates for charging stations in people’s homes, at workplaces and along major thoroughfares.
Consumers Energy expects to replace over 100 of its own fleet vehicles with electric vehicles that it will purchase or lease over the next five years. The change does not affect heavy equipment.