When Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe arrives August 23 to speak at a Traverse City Chamber of Commerce breakfast event, her presentation will stand for something that transcends typical CEO PR speeches. Poppe’s message about the utility’s commitment to eliminate coal by 2040 marks a clean-power tipping point—a tipping point for Michigan broadly and a tipping point for Traverse City specifically.
Poppe and Consumers made headlines recently (coincidentally just before Groundwork’s Michigan Clean Energy Conference this past June) by committing to reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent and phasing out coal by 2040, while replacing 40 percent of the utility’s production with renewables and storage. If Consumers is successful, the transition will be one of the biggest and fastest energy transformations in the history of the planet.
The transformation Poppe has set in motion is all the more remarkable given the history of slow change that is legend in long-established utilities, including at Consumers Energy, founded in 1886. I have seen that resistance to change within old-line utilities first hand during 20 years of clean-energy work.
Poppe became Consumers CEO in 2016. She is a Purdue-trained engineer with a Stanford business degree who has worked in Michigan’s two biggest industries—auto manufacturing and energy—since 1990. Poppe’s goal for the utility, which serves two-thirds of Michigan residents, including many northern Michigan towns, is to “provide the strong leadership needed to protect our planet and our home state for decades to come” as Consumers focuses on a corporate goal of “people, planet, and profit.”
I really encourage you to come hear what she has to say as she lays out her vision for a Consumers Energy future that walks away from the dark environmental legacy of industrial age fuels like coal and walks into a future with far lower emissions of CO2, mercury and other air-borne toxins. But, of course a vision and plan do not automatically create a new reality, especially in the energy sector. I am hoping Poppe’s leadership will include helping Consumers figure out how to support local distributed solar and the 1,000s of local Michigan jobs it could create.
Poppe’s visit is also noteworthy because it comes at a tipping point in Traverse City’s own energy transformation, and surprisingly, one of the drivers in that transformation is our Traverse City Chamber of Commerce. In the course of my clean-energy work I’ve found that, like large utilities, chambers of commerce, aren’t often leading drivers of clean energy. Often times business members want to keep their electric costs low, and in the past, the price of renewable energy has meant that switching to clean energy costs businesses dearly.
Which is why it is even more remarkable that the Traverse Chamber of Commerce, under the direction of Doug Luciani, has made clean energy a core issue. The organization has offered a no-interest loan program for efficiency upgrades for businesses. It has strongly supported, sponsored and engaged in Groundwork’s successful 2017 and 2018 Clean Energy Conferences. And, unknown to many, the chamber is participating in an innovative U.S. Department of Energy project of Green Chambers, along with just a handful of U.S. chambers—including San Francisco and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. In September, Luciani will head to California to present on how chambers can be powerful catalysts for clean-energy progress—particularly in rural areas.
Evidence of Traverse City’s clean-energy tipping point is also seen at our own municipally owned power utility, Traverse City Light and Power. Though minuscule in comparison to Consumers Energy, TCLP has recently been playing above its league in clean-energy innovation. The utility is working hard to meet the city’s commitment to go 100 percent clean energy for all municipally owned buildings by 2020. In addition, the utility has a green rate that allows a typical home to go 100 percent clean energy for about $4 a month. And now the TCLP board is on the verge of committing to a 100 percent clean-energy goal, and giving it a deadline, which would make it the first utility in Michigan and one of just 75 utilities in the entire nation to do so.
We urge all of you to share in this clean-energy tipping point moment by joining Patti Poppe, Consumers Energy, the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce, and our vibrant and growing clean-energy community to learn about, celebrate, and accelerate that process.