DTE Gas announces plan to go ‘net zero’...

DTE Gas announces plan to go ‘net zero’ by 2050; activists skeptical

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DTE Energy’s natural gas business will achieve ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions by 2050 through reducing emissions across its operations, the company announced today.

“We’ve decided to take a bolder step,” Vice President of Gas Sales and Supply Dan Brudzynski  told Planet Detroit. Brudzynski said the plan is “holistic” and addresses all three parts of the gas chain: production, distribution, and consumption. 

“A lot of our peers in the industry take a look at the part of the value chain that they’re responsible for. What we’ve decided with this commitment is to not focus on what we can directly control, but what we can also influence on both ends of that supply chain,” Brudyznski told Planet Detroit. 

Last year DTE Electric pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and two years ago, DTE Gas pledged an 80% reduction by 2040. This new proposal, Brudzynski said, improves on that 2040 commitment.

The plan aims to reduce a total of 6 million tons of greenhouse gases per year by 2050 —  1.3 million metric tons per year through working to shore up leaks in its supplier network, 1.4 million metric tons through internal infrastructure upgrades and carbon offsets, and 3.5 metric tons through consumer efficiency and technology upgrades and a voluntary opt-in program that will ask consumers to pay more for carbon offsets and renewables.

Local environmental advocates aren’t convinced the plan will result in real change.

Charlotte Jameson, a program director at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), told Planet Detroit she worries the announcement amounts to “more of a marketing ploy than a real effort to tackle climate change.” Jameson points to a lack of specifics in the plan and reliance on carbon offsets, which she said don’t ensure actual carbon reductions.

Jameson adds that DTE plans to develop new natural gas facilities in the near future. DTE plans to open the Blue Energy Water Center, a new 1,150 MW natural gas plant, in 2021. Jameson says the MEC as well as several other organizations submitted testimony and modeling showing that investing in renewables and efficiencies would have saved ratepayers “hundreds of millions of dollars versus the gas plan,” she said, but the plant was ultimately approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission. 

Amy Bandyk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan (CUB), wondered how the company will remain profitable since DTE Energy’s gas business made up 40 percent of the company’s earnings in 2019. She told Planet Detroit that “the very early details of the plan do not provide a clear path for how DTE will wean itself off the substantial profits it makes from natural gas.” 

Bandyk added that the plan’s reliance on offsets is “troubling.” She calls offsets a “paper accounting mechanism” and says DTE could better help reduce their emissions by electrifying systems and installing electric heat pumps. 

“DTE could be doing the actual work of reducing emissions itself, instead of buying offsets to get others to do that work,” she wrote in an email. “But electrifying systems means customers using less natural gas, which is not in DTE’s profit interest.”

The plan also relies on customers being willing to pay an additional fee to subsidize the utility’s investment in carbon offsets and renewables. Bridget Vial, an organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition says, “It’s not something to celebrate that we’re asking customers to pay more to do something that the industry really needs to be doing.” 

Todd Allen, nuclear engineering professor and founding director of the “Fastest Path to Zero Initiative” at the University of Michigan told Planet Detroit that offsets in the interim may be useful, but they won’t get us to 100% net zero. While DTE itself may eventually reach net zero, nationally and globally it will be a different story. 

“You’re saying zero, but you put the carbon offset somewhere else, and if you look at the big picture — are you really driving to 100 percent zero carbon? Probably not,” he said. 

He adds, “It depends on how they define the offsets and count them as to how well they work.” A forest planted for biosequestration purposes may actually be cut down sooner than projected, for example. 

“It’s a nice step. It doesn’t get rid of gas,” said Allen. 

In addition to gas customers subsidizing offsets for between $4 and $16 per month, they can also help subsidize DTE’s  renewables development via its BioGreenGas program, which allows customers to opt-in for an additional $2.50 charge a month to help generate “renewable” methane from landfills.  DTE Electric’s version of a similar program is called MIGreenPower, in which customers pay an additional $5-$25 a month. 

Brudzynski says the program may eventually be free but, “that’s a bit down the road, you’ve got to reach a higher penetration of participation.”

“[DTE] continues to maintain that moving toward renewable energy, moving toward reducing climate impact, isn’t economically viable, even when it is,” said Vial. Various estimates show that renewable energy is on track to be, or already cheaper than fossil fuels. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set 2050 as the date for achieving net zero emissions to avoid a 1.5-degrees celsius warming and catastrophic effects of climate change. 

Allen told Planet Detroit that the 2050 date is a consistent target for net zero initiatives across energy companies regionally and nationally. 

“A lot of [utilities] have latched onto the year 2050,” he said. “A lot of [utilities] could push this a lot faster if they were motivated to.”  According to Allen, a large grid infrastructure shift would take a decade on average. 

When asked why they couldn’t go net-zero sooner, Brudzynski told Planet Detroit, “You can really only do so much infrastructure renewal in a year. You’ve got to balance affordability and just the scale of the work,” noting that bringing the supplier side along takes time.