Consumers Energy's community solar array at Grand Valley State University. Credit: Consumers Energy / Creative Commons

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In a speech this week to a large, business-friendly crowd in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Consumers Energy President and CEO Patti Poppe presented an economic case for solar power, electric vehicles and moving past coal.

The company closed seven Michigan coal plants in 2016, cutting carbon emissions 25 percent without hurting its workforce. As the company focuses on solar in the coming years, Poppe said electric vehicles will play a growing role in the company’s “triple bottom line” principle of serving people, the planet and prosperity.

It’s a big departure for a CEO who not too long ago had an “I love coal” bumper sticker on her car. Here are four themes of Poppe’s Dec. 3 speech to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids:

Solar is the future

Poppe conceded that Consumers previously “fought” solar adoption. Now the company is embracing it, planning up to 6,000 megawatts of solar in its portfolio by 2040.

“We can have cleaner, more modular energy that more closely matches demand,” Poppe said. “It saves everyone money.”

She said the build-out will be “a little bit of both” utility-scale and smaller distributed projects, but active farmland isn’t the company’s first choice for development.

“We should be finding ways to use otherwise unusable land for solar — parking lots, warehouse rooftops,” she said.

Electric vehicles are good for the grid

Before joining the power sector, Poppe worked at General Motors for 15 years. She also co-chairs the Edison Electric Institute’s EV Task Force.

“We can all agree emissions-free vehicles would be good,” she said.

Electric vehicles also have cheaper operating costs, better performance and a longer lifespan than traditional internal combustion vehicles. And by charging electric vehicles during off-peak demand times when the system has excess capacity, “Fundamentally it just reduces the unit cost of energy.”

Closing coal makes sense

After Consumers’ coal closures, Poppe said all of the plant workers either qualified for retirement or took jobs elsewhere with the company.

Earlier this year, the company announced it would be coal-free by 2040 and reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent while also reducing water usage and waste sent to landfills. The company also does not plan large capital investments in a natural gas plant.

“It’s a win-win-win,” she said. “That’s why it’s not an economic risk to move away from a traditional energy source like coal.”

Infrastructure investments can still save ratepayers

Investing in electric and gas infrastructure while reducing rates “didn’t always go together, but they do today,” Poppe said.

Consumers — along with DTE Energy — is in the midst of long-term, several-billion-dollar infrastructure improvements for gas and electric. Yet Poppe says residential electric customers have saved 6 percent on bills over the past five years.

Andy Balaskovitz

Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.