Gerry Anderson, executive chairman of DTE Energy, spoke to Dr. Kaitlin Raimi, assistant professor of public policy, at a Wednesday afternoon talk hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy. Anderson centered his message around his belief that the public perception of the energy industry, largely critical when it comes to climate policy, is outdated.
Anderson said he believes the major players in the energy industry nationwide are committed to achieving a national power sector with net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.
“We’re there,” Anderson said. “The mindset is ready.”
A year ago, Anderson said he approached Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, to put together a “climate action roundtable” with the goal of pushing government policy toward a “Clean Energy Standard.” This national standard would require energy companies to source a certain percentage of their utilities through zero-carbon or low-carbon resources, which will gradually increase until 100% of their utilities are powered by clean energy.
“The industry can’t front that new narrative alone, we really need the environmental community to do that too,” Anderson said.
In a 2019 open letter to The New York Times, Krupp called upon business leaders nationwide to leverage their institutional power for policy change as well.
“CEOs need to reduce climate pollution within their own company operations, and they also need to unleash the most powerful tool they have to fight climate change: their political influence,” Krupp wrote in the letter.
Anderson said he and Krupp have recently met with dozens of members of Congress to discuss potential legislation in support of clean energy. The Biden administration has also demonstrated a commitment to environmental policy, Anderson said. Even so, Anderson emphasized the necessity of bipartisan congressional support for new environmental legislation to keep it from being overturned in future administrations or legislatures.
Anderson said he considers the clean energy standard preferable to a carbon tax, which levies taxes on companies proportional to their percentage of carbon reliance. Anderson also said carbon taxes place a financial strain on companies that prevent them from putting capital into fairly costly clean energy technologies and projects.
“I’d like to think that with the industry on board, we can work our way to a clean energy standard that’s ambitious, but technically workable and bipartisan,” Anderson said.
Anderson said he credits his commitment to sustainable energy to his father, who was an engineer in the agriculture industry and had what Anderon described as a “passion to try to figure out how to convert agricultural waste into energy.”
But before Anderson was the executive chairman at DTE, he received his bachelor degree in engineering and physics at the University of Notre Dame, and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Michigan in 1988. He joined DTE in 1993, was named president by 2004, CEO by 2010 and chairman in 2011.
Anderson explained the distinction between renewable energy, which he fears could overwhelm certain electricity grids, and clean energy. Renewable energy is a type of clean energy, but not all clean energy is renewable energy. Whereas renewables derive energy from resources that can naturally replenish themselves, such as wind, water and geothermal heat, clean energy is defined as electricity that generates zero greenhouse gas emissions during its production. This can be achieved through hydrogen fuel, nuclear reactors and other developing technologies.
It would be infeasible to attempt 100% carbon removal using solely renewable energy, Anderson claimed. An over-reliance on batteries is also dangerous, and would “take our precious mineral demand through the roof,” he cautioned.
“We are going to need new technologies in order to keep the grid stable and reliable,” Anderson said.
Carbon capture — a process by which the carbon is isolated and removed from natural gases before they are used for energy production — may be another alternative, according to Anderson.
Part of the progress that Anderson’s and Krupp’s climate action roundtable has achieved is in broadening the scope of understanding in government about clean energy and its possibilities, Anderson said. The difference between clean and renewable energy, for example, was “little understood on Capitol Hill a year ago,” according to Anderson.
“And it’s widely accepted by many now,” Anderson said. “There’s been a big shift in understanding.”
Because energy projects are capital-intensive and often take a decade to complete, Anderson said the industry must consistently maintain a long-term scope, regardless of the political landscape.
Moderator Raimi asked Anderson how the energy industry deals with changing political tides, considering the long term nature of its projects.
“You’ve been a leader at DTE through many state and federal political shifts with different perspectives on climate change,” Raimi said. “Of course, when you’re making long term plans and investment decisions, you have to consider the future well beyond any one political term. How do you go about factoring the political winds into your long term climate plans? How might you like to try to predict the future of government policies or where they might push you?”
Anderson emphasized that “you need to be aware of the political winds, but you can’t be dictated by them.”
“In our industry, you need to be aware of the political winds, but you can’t be dictated by them,” Anderson said.
Despite the Trump administration’s promise of the return of coal, for instance, by 2019 the energy industry moved in the opposite direction toward decarbonization.
“Your strategy needs to be able to look longer term,” Anderson said. “For our company, and for essentially every company in the industry, climate change is at the core of their strategy.”
The issue of sustainable energy and a climate-focused infrastructure has become even more urgent in the past few months. California spent the fall months battling wildfires and Texas spent its coldest winter days with a malfunctioning electricity grid that left the entire state freezing. Anderson attributes the Texas crisis to the state’s deregulated market and its failure to follow energy expert advice from almost a decade ago to inspect and update their grid when the state endured similar weather in 2011.
Anderson said he doesn’t foresee anything that drastic happening immediately in Michigan, which has thus far only faced slight temperature warming and increasing winds. In the longer term, however, he predicted Michigan may experience population shifts that impact its energy consumption and infrastructure, due to potential climate-induced migrations from other states.
For now, the exact future of clean energy is still unclear. Affordability and feasibility are key factors — which are two reasons why nuclear energy is so difficult to rely on in the long term. Anderson said any sustainable technology must have the ability to be “built at a predictable cost, at a smaller scale and in a manufacturing setting rather than… (as) a massive project.”
“We’ll see which technology wins,” Anderson said.
Daily News Contributor Arielle Gordon can be reached at email@example.com.