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DTE to retire coal use at Belle River Power Plant in 2028, two years earlier than planned


DTE Energy Co. said Wednesday it will stop burning coal in its Belle River Power Plant in St. Clair County's China Township in 2028, two years earlier than originally planned, in response to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policy change.

The move, according to the Detroit-based utility company, means it can accelerate its timeline for achieving 50% reductions in carbon emissions. It now expects to reach that target by 2028 instead of 2030. 

"A key part of DTE's Clean Vision Plan involves the sequential retirement of our coal plants," DTE Energy CEO Jerry Norcia said in a statement. "By making this important generation decision now, DTE continues to be proactive in improving our reliability, addressing the expanding needs of our customers and accelerating our journey to cleaner energy generation that is affordable for the customers and communities we serve."

What the move means for the future of the plant itself has not yet been determined. DTE said it is evaluating whether it would be feasible to convert the plant to a cleaner energy source such as natural gas. More information on that assessment will be available in future regulatory filings, the company said.

The Belle River plant, which dates to 1984, employs about 200 people. DTE said it will not lay off anyone in connection with the retirement of coal. It expects some employees who work there will retire in 2028, and others will be given opportunities elsewhere in the company.

"DTE intends to deliver on this commitment through several measures that include collaborating with union leadership, workforce re-skilling and employee redeployments," the company said in a news release.

“I can say with absolute certainty that all 200 employees that would be impacted by a closure of this plant will have other opportunities within DTE," Trevor Lauer, president of DTE's electric company, told The Detroit News.

Lauer said the move to retire coal use at Belle River was prompted by the EPA's Steam Effluent Limitations Guidelines rule, which has implications for how the company uses water at the plant. To keep in compliance with the guidelines, he said, DTE would have to invest about $55 million, which the company decided did not make sense since coal use there already was scheduled to end in 2030.

"This plant is ... an important asset for grid stability. It’s an important asset so we can continue to add more renewables into the mix. And if I have the plant operating, I can do that easier than having the plant not operating," he said. "So I will retire it off of coal by 2028 at the absolute latest; if I can switch it to a cleaner-burning fuel before then, that’s something we are going to study and try to understand.”

Still, if the plant were to be put back into production with a cleaner fuel, it would require only about 40 employees, so finding employees jobs in other parts of the company still would be necessary, Lauer said.

In response to DTE's announcement, the Sierra Club urged the company to replace coal use at the Belle River plant with renewable energy sources quicker.

“We are encouraged that DTE sees the writing on the wall for dirty, expensive coal and is moving up retirement of their Belle River plant by two years," said Mike Berkowitz, the Michigan representative for the environmental organization's "Beyond Coal" campaign. "However, DTE should cease coal operation at this plant even sooner and replace that capacity with true renewable energy and storage instead of fossil gas, a false solution driving significant water and methane pollution.”

The EPA in July announced it was initiating a rule-making process to strengthen wastewater pollution discharge limits for coal power plants that use steam to generate electricity. 

“EPA is committed to science-based policy decisions to protect our natural resources and public health,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement at the time. “In conducting a review of the 2020 rule as directed by President Biden, EPA determined that moving forward with implementing the existing regulations would ensure that water resources are protected now, while we quickly move to strengthen water quality protections and further reduce power plant pollution that can contain toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic, and selenium.”

To date, DTE has retired four of its coal-fired facilities: Marysville, Harbor Beach, Conners Creak and River Rouge. It is slated to retire two of its four remaining coal plants, St. Clair and Trenton Channel, in 2022.

The company also now will move up by one year, to the fall of 2022, the filing of its updated Clean Vision Plan with the Michigan Public Service Commission. The filing will provide an update on DTE's "journey to cleaner, reliable, and affordable energy," according to a news release, as well as "a detailed assessment of the existing and future energy needs" of its customers and how it plans to meet those.

A new, $1 billion natural-gas power plant, dubbed the Blue Water Energy Center, located on the same site as the Belle River plant, is slated to begin commercial operation in June as a replacement for some of the coal plants DTE is retiring. The plant, the first DTE has built since 1984, would create 1,150 megawatts of electricity for the company and provide electricity to 850,000 homes. 

DTE also has been investing in renewable energy sources. It operates 50 wind and solar farms in Michigan, which it says generate enough energy to power nearly 700,000 homes. By 2025, it expects it will generate enough renewable energy to power roughly 1.3 million homes.

The utility provider has committed to reducing carbon dioxide and methane emissions by more than 80% by 2040. Overall, DTE Energy serves about 2.2 million electric customers in southeast Michigan and about 1.3 million natural gas customers in the state.

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski