Around 170 students, faculty and staff gathered in the Robertson Auditorium at the Ross School of Business Wednesday evening for the event “Forging a Career at the Heart of the Climate Challenge: Perspectives from the Front Lines” with Gerry Anderson, former chairman and CEO of DTE Energy. Some members of the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor communities attended the event in protest of Anderson’s tenure as CEO.
The event, which was hosted by Net Impact Undergrad, consisted of a 50-minute presentation by Anderson about his journey from an undergraduate engineering and physics student to working with DTE to promote renewable energy usage.
Business junior Trevor Wallace, vice president of sustainability for Net Impact Undergrad, said this talk is the largest event the student organization has put on this semester. Wallace spoke about the reasoning behind this discussion with Gerry Anderson.
“I think that overall we really want to be able to foster an open dialogue,” Wallace said. “This sort of event really gives us a unique perspective and (gives us an opportunity to) talk to someone who has a lot of knowledge in energy space. I think it’s a good way to foster communication between what sustainable efforts are and how we can do that through this event.”
Anderson began by speaking about his education background at the Business School and his experience working as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. As he discussed his passion for sustainability and nature, Anderson said he never would have thought he would work with a corporation like DTE Energy when he was entering the workforce.
“(I wanted) to make my career focus on promoting the health of the natural world,” Anderson said. “I … began to think that my best chance to change the energy system perhaps was from within it, right at the very heart of an operation like DTE’s.”
Following Anderson’s discussion of his experience, seven protesters took the stage, standing behind Anderson and holding signs that said “No to Fossil Fuel,” “58% Coal No Thx” and “People Not Profit.”
As protestors stood silently on the stage for the remainder of the presentation, Anderson spoke about how DTE increased investments in renewable energy and the passage of the Clean Power Plan, legislation that Anderson said he heavily advocated for.
“I was proud of the outcome (of the Clean Power Plan),” Anderson said. “I was proud to be part of what felt like (Obama’s) first step in what was the first ever carbon regulation in any sector in our history.”
Jessica Berger, Environment and Sustainability graduate student, was one of the protesters at the event and said she participated in the protest because she disagreed with Anderson’s proposal. She said she was frustrated about the future plans he helped create at DTE.
“(Anderson) talked about hydrogen and carbon capture, which are false solutions that are going to hurt BIPOC communities and frontline communities,” Berger said. “Gerry Anderson is a major contributor to creating those frontlines of these environmental justice communities because of their dirty power plant solutions and they’re investing in false solutions. They’re only going to perpetuate and continue this harm done to these communities.”
After the presentation ended, Net Impact Undergrad co-presidents took to the stage and asked the protestors to leave for the Q&A portion of the evening. The protestors refused to leave the stage.
“We will leave the auditorium when DTE stops burning 58% coal,” one protestor responded.
Students asked questions concerning DTE’s large investments in nonrenewable energy sources, such as natural gas, and whether students can expect DTE to commit to immediate environmental goals.
Anderson responded by saying that, while he cannot speak for DTE anymore, he knows that there will be an Integrated Resource Plan this fall. The plan aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“So, you get a very clear read on how it is that they’re going to push their net zero target,” Anderson said. “The biggest challenge for the company is owning our own power plant. That plant produces 40% of the energy for this entire industry, and taking it out and replacing is a massive breakthrough and extremely complicated and expensive.”
Ann Arbor community members have raised concerns about DTE’s sustainability goals and reliability and have proposed a move to public power for the city. Ann Arbor Public Power (A2P2) looks for a move to a 100% renewable and public owned electricity grid for the city, which aligns with the A2Zero plan. A2P2 is currently awaiting a feasibility study to determine what resources are needed for this change and if the city is able to make this shift.
Zackariah Farah, U-M alum and current Michigan Medicine employee, was one of the protesters who stood on stage during the presentation. He said the protest was planned once some students heard about Net Impact Undergrad’s event last week.
“I thought that as a member of the campus community, I need to be here to correct that record because (…) it’s ridiculous that the CEO, who at the end of his term was overseeing the burning of 58% coal to power southeastern Michigan, was here to act like he was a climate champion,” Farah said.
Daily News Reporter Rachel Mintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.