On the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 27, Consumers Energy was in a crisis. Across Michigan, two days of bitter sub-zero cold caused by a polar vortex created record demand for natural gas. Then, a fire at Consumers’ Ray Natural Gas Compressor Station in Macomb County shut down gas flow from the key facility, which is responsible for about a fifth of the state’s supply.
Faced with the threat of gas cuts in the midst of a deadly freeze, the company and the state sent out an emergency plea for residents to turn down their thermostats to 65 degrees until midnight Friday. In the meantime Consumers rerouted gas from other facilities and pipelines. Compliance with the request to conserve energy was strictly voluntary, but the people of Michigan listened. By Thursday Consumers’ CEO announced that natural gas usage was down ten percent. That same day the company thanked customers for their responsiveness and said that they could turn their thermostats back up twelve hours earlier than they’d initially anticipated. The action of residents and businesses and the rerouting efforts of Consumers averted disaster this time, but some say that the incident has exposed serious vulnerabilities in Michigan’s natural gas infrastructure.
The cause of the fire at the Macomb County station hasn’t been confirmed, but Governor Gretchen Whitmer has expressed concern about the company’s reliance on that one facility. Whitmer has asked the State Public Service Commission to examine the state’s energy supply and delivery systems. Experts also emphasize the need to focus not just on increasing companies’ capacity to provide energy but decreasing energy demand. Energy efficiency measures would not only work to prevent emergencies like the one that unfolded on Wednesday but help to lower energy bills and pollution as well.