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Go Green: MSU burns its last lump of coal

Last lump of MSU coal photo
Brian Wheeler
Consumers Energy, Inc.
This ceremonial "last lump" of coal signifies Michigan State University's transition from coal-fired to natural gas-powered electric generation.

Consumers Energy is working with MSU to build a new substation that will power the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams. At the same time, the utility is retiring seven outdated coal-fired power plants in Michigan. We talk about these issues with Consumers Energy Vice President Garrick Rochow.

Generations of Spartans have shouted the battle cry, “Go Green!” Now, Michigan State University is turning that spirited athletic cheer into an smart energy choice. Yesterday, MSU announced that it has ceased burning coal at the T.B. Simon Power Plant on campus, in favor of natural gas. The university says it made the switch for both environmental and economic reasons.

The move is part of a larger energy transition plan MSU first created in 2012. Jackson-based Consumers Energy is supplying the natural gas lines for the university, as well as helping with a big energy project on the horizon.

Current State talks with Garrick Rochow, a vice-president with Consumers Energy and its chief customer officer.


What prompted the changes at MSU?

“It really is a commitment by the university to have less carbon emissions, and a smaller carbon footprint. Natural gas is a great way to do that. It’s a 50 percent reduction in air emissions with natural gas versus burning coal.” — Garrick Rochow

On the economic factors of the decision

“Absolutely. Not only is it environmentally safer, but natural gas is less expensive. It’s due in part to fracking, and also partly due to our purchasing strategies. We’re one of the largest storage fields in the country, which allows us to purchase natural gas in the summer when it’s low cost and provide it year-round to a lot of our customers. Certainly there’s economics that make this a good choice for the university as well.” — Rochow

Is a coal clean up required at MSU's plant?

“None that I’m aware of. From a Consumers Energy perspective, we brought in the natural gas lines. We’re also in the process of building a new substation to support not only campus, but the facility for rare isotope beams. We’re in the process of construction right now. We’ve been on the golf course here on campus bringing some of the electric service to the substation. It’s going to be over the next couple years that we provide that.

Ultimately, the facility for rare isotopes should be available to use in 2022 - so we’re preparing for that. Again, the energy that we supply through that substation will be greener and greener. We’re expanding our use of renewable energies as a utility. MSU has certainly taken advantage of that as well.” — Rochow

Will the substation go online before 2022?

“Absolutely. Transformers will arrive late this summer, early fall. We’ll be putting those in place. We envision construction being complete in 2017.” — Rochow

On storage battery technology

“First part of April we announced a two-year partnership to work with the university on the placement and study of batteries for storage. With renewable resources - like solar and wind - it’s intermittent in nature. So to be able to provide energy to our consumers 24/7, we need to look at different options. A lot of that can come through battery storage technology. It’s in the early stages.” — Rochow

On dramatic changes in natural gas prices

“It certainly requires us to be on our game and looking forward as a utility. The dynamics seem to be changing faster than ever. Specifically in terms of natural gas and renewable energies. With some of the renewables we’ve seen costs decrease. Fracking has really changed over the past five to eight years. It has become a low-cost, cleaner source of energy. We’re continuously looking at ways how coal, natural gas and other renewables can meet the balanced needs of the state.” -- Rochow

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