Jobs you didn’t know existed at DTE: Environmental engineer

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For another installment of our ‘Jobs You Didn’t Know Existed at DTE’ series, we sat down with environmental engineer Matt Shackelford. Speak with him for just a few minutes and you will quickly find that his title does little to describe the work he does. From managing an ecological burn on 80 acres of the Monroe Power Plant property to researching mayflies, Shackelford is a driving force behind the company’s environmental stewardship efforts.

Early in his career at DTE Energy, Shackelford was involved in an extensive research project on mayflies.

Why mayflies? Ask anyone who lives within a mile of Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, or Lake Erie and they will tell you that hordes of mayflies can become so thick, they can completely cover your car. They can also cover the air intake for power plants, potentially causing a power plant to stop producing electricity.

Through his research, DTE could employ measures like turning off lights during times the mayflies were most active and adding netting to specific areas to keep mayflies away from critical equipment.

While his training is as a freshwater ecologist, and he still has a great interest in native mussel species, he also works to improve wildlife environments on land. In fact, he has helped 38 DTE facilities become wildlife habitat certified through the Wildlife Habitat Council in Michigan alone.

You can hear my full conversation with Shackelford on our Empowering Michigan podcast here:

Editor’s Note: In the podcast, we inadvertently refer to Shackelford as a marine biologist. He is, in fact, a freshwater ecologist by training.

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David Lingholm:  [00:03] In our second installment of the DTE Energy Jobs You Never Knew Existed series, I caught up with Matt Shackelford. While his title is engineer in the company’s environmental management and resources division, he is by training a marine biologist.

[00:22] So why does an energy company need a marine biologist? What does he do for the company when he’s not in the water researching? I asked those questions and a few more on this edition of the Empowering Michigan podcast.

[00:35] I’ll start off really early in your career, when you started here at DTE Energy, you actually got started on a project researching mayflies. Why is something like that interesting to a company like DTE Energy?

Matt Shackelford:  [00:53] A lot of our power plants are located on water. The Monroe power plant, located on the western basin of Lake Erie, in early June through July is inundated with the large mayfly species. I think everybody knows it’s fish flies or hermie flies, but it’s the big guys.

[01:19] They can come in in such densities that they can clog our air intakes, they can short out transformers. So as a college student, my last days as a college student, I was asked to come in and help with trying to figure out if there was some kind of predictive mechanism we knew when these species were going to come off the lake and swarm around our power plants.

[01:53] I spent a couple of summers collecting samples and winters in the lab for DTE trying to figure out what makes them tick from an emergent cycle standpoint. We never really…There’s so many factors that influence, wind and water temperatures, but we did find that there was a couple of peaks through the season that were somewhat predictable.

[02:22] We just took some control measures such as turning off lights during that time of year, actually putting netting around some of our intake fans to keep swarms of mayflies from being taken into our intake fans, some of those control measures. That was many years ago, and they’re still in place today.

David:  [02:42] It’s interesting because those intake valves and things like that, that’s vital to the power plant being able to run in the first place.

Matt:  [02:53] That’s the air that controls combustion for our boilers, so they can definitely be so many mayflies coming off that a lot of them get clogged up.

David:  [03:03] Why are there so many mayflies down there in the first place?

Matt:  [03:06] I think everybody knows back in the late ’60s, early ’70s the press reports that Lake Erie was dead. It was really because of lack of oxygen at the sediment. A lot of your critters so to speak…Organisms that live in the bottom sediment weren’t surviving because of lack of oxygen.

[03:28] What was really cool about mayflies is that they came back. They live in the bottom sediments for one or two years. It’s part of their life cycle. They need that oxygen at the sediment interface. That just shows that Lake Erie had made a comeback. In such force, those mayflies were coming off, and they could shut down a power plant potentially.

David:  [03:54] First of all, I’ve never heard anybody say cool and mayfly in the same sentence, so I really appreciate that.

[03:58] In some sense…Since you’ve been here at DTE, some of the other things that you’ve done research on, for example, I know looking at zebra mussels and how they’ve crowded natural populations. I think I’m among many people that just assumed they’d completely pushed out any of the native mussel species.

Matt:  [04:21] A lot of people who really don’t know about the native mussel species, they’ve heard about…When you mention mussels, they immediately go to the invasive species, the zebra mussel, and now their cousin, the quagga mussel, are in town and pushing everybody out.

[04:36] But DTE had a interest in zebra mussels early on because they were clogging our intakes. When they first arrived in the late ’80s into the ecosystem, they took over with a vengeance. Their population was so high. Part of their life cycle is they have…Should I use a technical term?

David:  [05:08] Sure.

Matt:  [05:08] Velagers that are in the water column. They’re called velagers. They float through the water column. The densities were so high.

[05:15] Eventually they settle onto hard substrates in the water. Those hard substrates are our intake equipment, our pumps. They were clogging everything up and attaching to everything they could attach to.

[05:31] So back in the day, we had to take steps to figure out what was going on with zebra mussels and the best management and maintenance techniques to keep them from shutting our facilities down.

[05:46] Also as part of that and being biologists and before me biologists that worked for the company had an interest in native mussels. Partnerships through NOA and USGS back then, did some native mussel surveys before zebra mussels came in to the system and found fairly healthy populations throughout western basin Lake Erie where our Monroe power plant is.

[06:13] After zebra mussels, as you mentioned, zebra mussels came in and pretty much wiped out a lot of our native mussel populations through the ecosystem because they attached to hard substrates. Our native mussels sit on the bottom, and they are hard substrate to be attached to. So they eventually smother native mussels. A lot of areas where native mussels were common, those native mussels disappeared.

[06:40] What we found through surveys in Lake Erie near our Monroe power plant is we have a thriving population of native mussels living in our discharge at Monroe power plant in Lake Erie. We’ve documented approximately 12 species, densities as high as 11 mussels per square meter. At some points, we were walking on sediments, you can’t help but step on a mussel, there’s so many down there.

David:  [07:14] That’s incredible.

Matt:  [07:16] That’s a warm water discharge. Zebra mussels are a northern latitude species. They come from Russia. They like cold water, so they don’t like warm water. So that warm water keeps all of the native mussels zebra mussel free.

[07:33] Our native mussels are more of a southern latitude species, so they like the warm water.

David:  [07:38] Interesting. It’s fascinating just given all of the attention it is on Lake Erie, but that’s all what your job is either is just focusing on the water part.

[07:52] Certainly you mentioned partnerships with several different agencies, but DTE also happens to be a pretty doggone big landowner. If we don’t own the land, control a lot of right of ways in the state of Michigan. I know a big focus at your job is helping the company manage those sustainably.

Matt:  [08:18] Sure. As far as a lot of our facilities, most of our facilities…We’re up to 38 facilities that are wildlife habitat certified.

[08:28] From a facilities standpoint, we try to incorporate native plants in a lot of our gardens. Some of our bigger facilities, out power plants, have a lot of land. We actually install prairies and restore wetlands.

[08:47] Those are done through partnerships as you mentioned, Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever. A lot of different agencies partner with us and cost share grants to have some of these projects installed, especially the bigger ones, at our facilities.

[09:06] Our smaller facilities, our service centers, we have pollinator gardens, things like that. That all goes towards wildlife certification at these facilities.

David:  [09:15] That’s got to be particularly gratifying to pull some of those…to be a part of some of those projects for you.

Matt:  [09:24] Oh yeah. Early on when starting with DTE, my leadership realized my interest in wildlife habitat with my academic background, my interest. They really let me go and spread my wings there. They knew it had a lot of value, especially to the facilities that I was working at.

[09:47] As long as my core work got done, I was free to go and work on habitat projects. So I reached out to a lot of these agencies and formed partnerships that survive today. It’s just good stuff.

David:  [10:06] Interesting. Thanks very much for taking a few minutes to sit down and talk with me about why DTE needs a biologist on staff.

Matt:  [10:15] It’s my pleasure.

David:  [10:16] Thanks, Matt.

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