DTE seeks permission for nearly $1B natural gas power plant

DTE Energy Co. announced Tuesday that it is seeking permission to build a natural gas-fired power plant northeast of Detroit as the utility moves forward with plans to close coal-fired plants.

If approved, the plans call for a groundbreaking for the nearly $1 billion plant in 2019 in St. Clair County, where the Detroit-based utility has operated the St. Clair and Belle River coal-fired power plants for decades. The St. Clair plant is being shut down around 2020-2023.

"A fundamental transformation in the way we produce power in Michigan has already begun," Trevor F. Lauer, DTE Electric president and COO, said in a statement. He said the new plant "is the best solution for our customers due to many factors, including the environment, reliability and affordability."

DTE's plan is part of a nationwide trend as many power companies shift from coal to natural gas as their primary generation fuel, despite President Donald Trump's pledge to revive the coal industry. Trump's administration intends to dismantle former President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan and climate change regulations that hampered coal production. Yet analysts say the biggest factor in coal's slump is an abundance of cheap natural gas brought on by falling gas prices amid the hydraulic fracturing boom.

Natural gas has overtaken coal as the top source of U.S. energy generation in recent years and supplied 34 percent of the nation's power in 2016. Also chipping away at coal's share of the market are fast-growing renewable fuels such as wind and solar power.

The Michigan Public Service Commission will review the request and has about nine months to respond. If approved, DTE said the gas-fired plant in East China Township will provide 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough for 850,000 homes, starting in 2022.

Construction of the plant is expected to create about 500 jobs, DTE said. Workers from the plants that are closing are expected to be offered the chance to be retrained to work at the new one.

In September, DTE said it would build a gas-fired plant in near the existing St. Clair County power plants, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) from of Detroit.

In addition to closing the St. Clair coal-fired plant, DTE has said it also will remove the River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal-fired plants from service. Long term, DTE plans to produce over three-quarters of its power from renewable energy such as solar and wind, as well as natural gas-fired plants.