Patti Poppe, the head of a Michigan utility that serves 6.7 million people, wanted to get greener, faster. Four years ago, Consumers Energy relied on power plants that burn fossil fuels for 74% of its electricity—until staff realized the utility could nearly eliminate its dependence on coal and natural gas, thanks to the plunging costs of renewable energy.
Consumers has since stopped adding fossil fuels to the grid. It has retired seven of its coal-fired power plants and, by 2040, plans to retire the remaining five. Instead, Consumers will generate more electricity from solar and wind farms, large-scale battery storage and other technologies. Several of its solar projects are due to come online in 2022; a competitive bidding process is underway. Consumers is also working to help customers manage and reduce their electricity consumption with connected devices such as smart thermostats and smart meters, which enable remote tracking and management of energy consumption. It’s a big shift for a 134-year-old utility that finished rolling out smart meters only two years ago and, until then, performed meter checks in person.
“We were walking through people’s backyards to figure out how much energy they were using a month,” says Ms. Poppe, also the CEO of Consumers parent CMS Energy. “Technology has evolved to the point where we can optimize energy usage for the first time.”