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In the middle of the afternoon Jan. 30, officials at Hemlock Semiconductor Operations received an urgent appeal from their natural gas supplier: Cut back on usage to help us deal with a fire at our main supply facility.

The request put the Saginaw County company, which makes ultra-pure polysilicon for solar panels and semiconductors in smartphones and other devices, in a bind. 

With temperatures plunging below zero and user demand spiking, Consumers Energy had already asked Hemlock to reduce its electricity use that morning, before the blaze forced the utility to shut down its Ray Compressor Station in Macomb County.

“The company can’t go off both at the same time,” Hemlock spokesman David Waymire said. “Based on how much you reduce in one area, it’s imperative you find a balance."

Waymire said the company reduced its production to accommodate the requests but declined to go into detail, other than to say its electrical use decreased by 33 percent, and natural gas consumption dropped 15 percent. Two days later, the company began shifting systems back to normal.

"It was kind of a stressful day, for sure, but it was dealt with properly so the electric system and natural gas would continue to work well in the state,” he said.

Some of Michigan's largest industrial employers answered the call, helping avoid forced gas shutoffs during the state's coldest weather in more than 20 years.

Michigan Sugar Co. got the call from Consumers Energy to reduce its natural gas usage around 10:30 p.m. Jan. 30. The company cranked down the thermostat at its corporate headquarters in Bay City, alerting its 72 employees there that it would be chilly the next day.

“There were a few people who wore hats around the office,” said Rob Clark, a company spokesman. “People were wearing jackets and sweaters.”

On the morning of Jan. 31, Consumers requested the company increase its efforts to reduce gas usage. Michigan Sugar took actions at three of its four factories to conserve 3,700 million cubic feet of natural gas until given the all-clear at midnight.

The company slowed the slicing and processing of sugar beets at its largest factory in Bay City, Clark said. It also turned off the sugar beets pulp processing at its plants in Caro and Sebewaing, where it also increased its use of coal to power the factory.

"I wouldn’t say it negatively affected operations,” Clark said. “It slowed us down a bit for the day, but it was a small price to pay to help Consumers get through that ‘unprecedented crisis.’”

At its manufacturing operations in Mason, Dart Container Corp. switched its boilers to oil fuel the day of the fire, and the next day, Margo Burrage, a company spokeswoman, said in an email. It also halted use of natural gas at its Holt Facility.

Consumers Energy contacted General Motors Co. around 1 p.m. Jan. 30 and asked the automaker to help Consumers ensure that the energy company could get gas to higher-priority establishments like hospitals, according to GM spokesman Pat Morrissey.

GM agreed to cut back its usage, halting operations at 13 manufacturing facilities and three corporate locations.

Ford Motor Co. did not close any facilities due to natural gas restrictions, but it curtailed certain heat-intensive processes at its Sterling Axle plant, lowered the temperature in its Livonia Transmission Plant and Van Dyke Transmission Plant and stopped paint processes and parts of the stamping operation at Michigan Assembly Plant, which builds the new Ranger midsize pickup.

Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Kelli Felker declined to comment on the specifics of Ford’s contract with Consumers or give specifics of when Consumers contacted Ford. 

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles received a request from Consumers at midafternoon Jan. 30 to reduce its natural gas use, said Val Oehmke, a spokeswoman for the carmaker.

The automaker canceled first and second-shift production the next day at Warren Truck and Sterling Heights Assembly Plants.

"Like many other Michigan residents and businesses, we worked collaboratively and successfully with Consumers Energy to support the need," she said. 

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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