Patti Poppe, CEO Consumers Energy, Says Renewable Tech and Jobs Are Surging. Coal Done.

February 5, 2019 |

Patti Poppe accepted her position as CEO of Consumers Energy in July 2016, and by February 2018 she had ushered through a corporate goal of stopping the burning of coal by 2040 and reducing carbon emissions by 80% in that same time. The initiative at a Top 20 utility earned headlines nationwide and positioned both Consumers Energy and Poppe as national leaders in the fight to slow global warming.

Groundwork has since invited Poppe to serve as the keynote speaker at our Michigan Clean Energy Conference, May 21–23—an offer she has graciously accepted. (Conference registration opens Feb. 8!) In the meantime, we asked her to share thoughts about the globally significant transition that Consumers has embarked upon.

Word is you used to have an “I heart coal” bumper sticker on your car. But then you led one of the nation’s largest utilities to a zero coal future. What drove that remarkable change?

Yes, that’s true. I was proud of our coal plants that powered Michigan. But when I came to understand the science of climate change, I knew we had to do something different. And we did a lot of homework to figure out what we had to do. There was a time in our company when there was a lot of denial about climate change. Many people here said climate change was alarmist and they didn’t believe it. And I can say that at first I did not do my homework either.

HAVE YOU SEEN … Video interview with Kate Madigan, leader of Michigan Climate Action Network, and Hans Voss discussing possibilities for environmental progress under the Whitmer administration. (Groundwork Facebook, scroll to videos.)

What happened to bring about that change?

We did a forum where we brought in opposing viewpoints with supporting information. Because what you really see is that people on both sides do not really have a good scientific basis for what they think about this. When you ask people why they think climate change is real, they say, “Because I believe it.” And when you ask people who doubt climate change, they say, “Because it’s alarmist.” So we had people come in and I did my homework and I learned the science and it became clear that we could be part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions. It was a no-regrets move. And that is especially true if we can do it in a way that does not economically harm customers. Also, within the company, some people retired and new people came onto the team who had different points of view.

It seems the one thing you always hear from people who deny human-caused climate change is that Earth has always gone through transitions, and this is just one more transition.

It’s true, Earth has gone through transitions, the climate is always changing, but when you look at the carbon charts based on the ice cores and at the ocean acidification charts, it’s hard to deny the impact of carbon. But the thing is you have to look at them.

How difficult was it, given the emotional culture of Consumers Energy at the time, to get consensus around the zero-coal goal?

It was very interesting. With the new voices in the conversation, it was actually not difficult. People were open minded, and when y