As we look at taking care of the planet it can seem that our efforts are just a drop in a very large bucket.  However, every effort matters.  Listen as Consumers Energy’s Sarah Crouch discusses sustainability and why it matters.

Bill Krieger: Hello, everyone. Welcome to “Me You Us,” a well-being podcast. It’s another well-being Wednesday here at Consumers Energy. I’m your host, Bill Krieger.

Today, my guest is Sarah Crouch. She’s an Odorizing Engineer here at Consumers Energy. Sarah, if you’ll introduce yourself, we’ll get the conversation started.

Sarah Crouch: My name is Sarah Crouch. I’ve been with the company for around four years now. I graduated from Michigan Tech with a degree in Environmental Engineering. I went straight into the EEP program, did four rotations. Some of those in gas, one in generation, and then one in the Environmental Department.

Came out of that, started as the Odorization Engineer in Metering Regulations and Controls, on the gas side, and I’ve been there for about two years now.

Bill: All right, excellent. Let’s go back to the beginning of that. You said EEP. Now, I know what you’re talking about, but maybe some people in our audience don’t. What is the EEP program? What does that stand for?

Sarah: Consumers has the EEP program or the Engineering Entry Program. It’s an amazing program that brings young engineers in. They do rotations. You do four rotations, typically, and rotate every six months. You get to be exposed to a bunch of different areas of the company, and you get to find your niche and where you might fit in for a final placement.

Bill: That’s awesome. You get to know a little bit about our culture too, before you come to work here, right?

Sarah: Yes, absolutely. You learn a lot of the initiatives of the company, of the culture, how you can make an impact as an employee. You learn a lot of that as an EEP.

Bill: Let’s talk about now, what does an odorizing engineer do, because there may be some people out there that giggle when they hear it, who knows? What is an odorizing engineer?

Sarah: The joke in my department is that my job is just to make the gas stink, or to make the gas smell bad. [laughs] Natural gas is odorless. It does have some natural odor, but it is odorless. That smell that you smell when you have a minor gas leak or you smell natural gas, is odorant that we add to the gas to make it smell that way.

As the Odorizer Engineer in the MR&C Department, I’m involved in the management and working directly with the field to support and keep up with around 100 odorizers around the state. We also do some pickling jobs.

If you’re on the distribution gas side of the company and you’re putting in pipeline, we’re involved with pickling that and conditioning that to prepare for gas to flow through the pipeline.

Bill: That’s interesting. A lot of people don’t know that natural gas doesn’t naturally have that rotten egg odor to it. You said pickling. What are we talking about when we’re talking about pickling? We’re getting way off track here, but I want to know all these things.

Sarah: [laughs] Pickling or pipeline conditioning is when you put in new steel pipe or new steel main. Because of chemical reactions inside the pipeline or the porosity of the inner wall of the pipeline, the odorant that is currently held in the gas when it flows through that pipeline, it will be absorbed or sucked out of the gas stream.

Then that gas is odorless, which is unsafe. Odorizing gas is really a safety initiative. It’s a safety concern to send customers on odorized gas. Prior to that, we will pickle or condition the pipeline.

We will send highly-odorized gas or more saturated odorized gas down the gas stream and pre-pickle or pre-adsorb, pre-fill up those spots, and reactions with odorant. Then the gas that moves through won’t lose its odorant. It’ll stay stinky and go straight to the customers.

Bill: You learn something new every day. I’ve heard pickling my entire career. Did not exactly know what that meant. Thank you for enlightening me…

Sarah: [laughs]

Bill: …and enlightening the audience. I do want to ask, though, lots of kids, when they’re growing up, “I want to be a firefighter. I want to be a policeman. I want to be a teacher,” and so on. Did you grow up saying, “I want to be an odorizing engineer?”

Sarah: No. I’ve wanted to be an environmental engineer for a long time. Went to school for it, graduated. My final rotation was with environmental engineering in the environmental department. Coming out of that, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do.

I got a call coming out of [laughs] the e-program. They said, “We have this position open. I’d like to interview you for it.” I had never heard of odorization. I honestly was probably a person who didn’t know that we added an odorant to make natural [laughs] gas smell. Had the interview. Sounded super interesting and just jumped all in. Two years later, here I am.

Bill: Wow. You said environmental science or environmental engineering. I know that we are smack in the middle of Earth Month right now. That’s one of the reasons that we’re here to talk, honestly. Not necessarily just about odorizing gas, but to talk about what we’re doing during Earth Month.

Can you talk a little bit about what we’ve already done? Then maybe we can talk a little bit about what’s coming up.

Sarah: On March 23rd, we had GreenCon, which is…Historically, it was a virtual conference. This year, we did get to do a hybrid conference and have some people in person, which was amazing. It’s really a conference that focuses on all things green, all things environmental, sustainability, really.

A lot of people get stuck on the environmental portion, but it is about sustainability, the triple bottom line here at the company. We had GreenCon. We had over, I think, 70 participants. Some of those people were in person.

Our main focus this year was environmental justice. We had a keynote speaker, Regina Strong from EGLE, come in and talk about the department that she works in and what environmental justice was. We kicked off Earth Month with GreenCon this year.

Bill: Let’s talk a little bit about environmental justice. I know that we’re looking at what exactly does that mean? What did your guest speaker have to say about that? You don’t have to repeat, of course, the whole speech, but what did she say about environmental justice?

Sarah: The way that she explained it, and I had never thought of it this way, is that there’s equality and equity. There are other areas or there areas where environmental impacts hit harder. They hit harder, and they don’t necessarily have the tools, the resources, the support system to get out of that situation.

Her focus and her department’s focus is to call out and acknowledge areas that are environmental impact areas. A lot of times, these areas are inner cities, near factories, on the downstream sides of polluted rivers, places like that.

Bill: Do we have things coming up this month that are going to focus on environmental justice?

Sarah: Yeah. We do have a long list of volunteering activities or volunteering events. A lot of park cleanups in Jackson, Saginaw, and Alma. A lot of those park cleanups are in environmental impact areas in the state of Michigan.

That’s a direct impact that employees can go out, volunteer their time, and directly positively impact an area that we do acknowledge as a site of environmental injustice.

Bill: If you work for Consumers Energy, can you go out to the volunteer portal then and sign up for one of these?

Sarah: Yep. All of these are listed on the volunteer portal. You can go, you can sign up. There are a ton of them. If you are local in the Jackson area, there are a lot of park cleanups there. Then like I said, if you’re a local to any of the other areas, Saginaw, Alma, we also do the Belle Isle cleanup in Detroit, which is really cool. They’re all listed on the volunteer portal.

Bill: If you don’t find something on the volunteer portal that’s near you, you can always initiate something yourself, record those volunteer hours, and help your community.

Sarah: Yes, absolutely.

Bill: I understand you had this interest in environmental science. What piqued your interest in that at a young age? Why was that an interest to you?

Sarah: I had the typical dream, I wanted to be a veterinarian, a vet. Decided I probably didn’t have the heart for it in the end. [laughs] I did know that I wanted to make an impact.

I took some engineering classes throughout my high school education. Didn’t really find anything that interested me. I didn’t want to do computer programming. I didn’t want to do robotics. I was online looking in Michigan Tech. Beautiful scenery up there, wonderful campus location.

I was like, “OK. Well, I’m from Indiana, from rural Indiana. I’ve never been to a very cool place right on the water.” I didn’t have a lot of initiative or a lot of knowledge of what environmental engineering was before I decided to just go for it.

Obviously, an interest in the environment, I loved being outside, but from a knowledge base, not a lot as…


Bill: Sometimes the best decisions are made that way. Like, “Oh, that looks cool.” I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. Then it was everyone wanted to be a marine biologist and work with dolphins. Dolphins were the cool thing in the ’70s and ’80s. I don’t know anyone that actually did that. They all became something different because something else piqued their interest.

You talk a little bit about GreenCon. That relates to our Green Teams. Can you talk about what our Green Teams are and what they do, and maybe a little bit more about GreenCon as well?

Sarah: Yep. Our Green Teams are a grassroots team that Jessica Spagnuolo and Bethany Weems Tobio has started I can’t remember…Years ago now at this point. Probably five years ago, I think. Started with just the initiative to support not just the environmental department, but as well as the company and just some of these sustainability initiatives.

One of the big ones that I’m sure employees recall is the waste reduction. [laughs] If you worked at Parnall or the Jackson Service Center, it was a bit of an uproar when they took their personal trash bins away. We decided to do the centralized waste bins.

Putting the pressure on us as employees to learn about waste stream separation and acknowledging that we could have a direct impact on the landfill diversion rates and such that the environmental department had. It was a big initiative.

Some other initiatives that we support, again, are just the typical the land enhancement goals. Those are all impacted by these volunteering events that occur in Earth Month. There are a lot of things that the Green Teams do in the background.

With GreenCon, we do try to focus on some of the things that we can do as these small Green Teams that almost feels like an individual contributor level that you can get out and make large impacts on these company goals.

Bill: I think I was part of that uproar in Lansing when I noticed that my trashcan was gone. The upside was you’re right, I learned about disposing of things in the proper way. Things as simple as it might be recyclable but has food waste on it so now I can’t necessarily recycle it.

I was having this conversation with someone the other day about pizza boxes because I love to throw pizza boxes in my recycle bin. Not that I eat a lot of pizza, but when I do. I was informed that you can’t do that because the oils in the pizza or whatever contaminate the box, and then that contaminates the whole recycle bin and so on. I did learn a few things.

I also got a few extra steps in, so I can’t complain too much. Now it’s just a part of how we do business. It seemed like a small thing at the time that we made a big deal out of, but in the long run, it really is a big deal because many people got educated.

Sarah: One of the huge ones that a lot of people…I don’t know if a lot of people even know about it, is that all of the materials, the bowls, the silverware, stuff like that that come out of the Parnall Cafeteria or OEP cafeteria, those are compostable.

You see the green bins that have compost slapped on the side, all of that material can go and be composted now, which is a huge diversion from the old plates, the old plastic, silverware that you just tossed in the trash. That’s a huge win in from a waste reduction standpoint.

Bill: From the end user’s viewpoint, the compostable plasticware is sturdy. I was a little concerned about that at first, like, “Oh, I’m going to end up with plastic in whatever I’m eating,” but that’s not what happened.

Sarah: They’ve made leaps and bounds from I think…I remember when I first started trying to buy more compostable or biodegradable, it was pretty flimsy. Stuff was not very solid, but now, it almost does. It feels normal. It doesn’t feel any different than…It’s sturdier than a Styrofoam or something.

Bill: That leads me to talk a little bit about sustainability as well. Like I said, I grew up in a different time where we called it ecology. We had little green flags with peace signs on them and all of that. We didn’t really talk about sustainability.

Can you talk a little bit about environmentalism and sustainability, and maybe what some of the differences might be?

Sarah: A lot of times, it gets a little confused. Sustainability does come down to the triple bottom line of people, planet, profit. Planet is a part of that. The way that my professor used to explain it in school was it’s a three-legged stool. You can’t focus all of your energy on one of the legs of the stool because it’ll get off-center and it’ll fall over.

Whereas environmentalism does focus on just the environment. Sustainability acknowledges that the environment has a direct impact on people who are living in it. Then also a lot of initiatives and goals do have…They’re impacted by the profit or the money. It is all tied together. That’s the difference with sustainability.

Bill: Thank you for that. I do want to talk a little bit more about the Green Teams as well. Outside of Earth Month, and I talked to Tallulah about this as well, that we have these compartmentalized months where we think about things. The idea is to generate some excitement around it and then do these things throughout the year.

Outside of Earth Month, which is a lot of exciting things going on, what are the Green Teams looking at doing throughout the year to maybe maintain that momentum?

Sarah: Before this year, I was the lead of the Parnall Green Team. Working out of the Parnall office, we focus a lot of our energy on, obviously, the Parnall Complex. One of the things that we focused on are our garden plots. If you come into Parnall, you can see that there are gardens. Those gardens are free for employees to plant.

We have budget to purchase plants. We have a planting day. We go out and get together as a group and plant those. Last year, we built and placed three, I think, there were three bird boxes, maybe one bird box, using recycled electrical poles. That was a diversion.

A lot of times, we focus on impacting the local area that we work, increasing employee engagement, and getting people outside, as well as other things, like the waste reduction and things like that.

Bill: It reminds me of a story that I shared before. When we talk about doing things on a local level, it’s a drop in the ocean if you look at the big picture of where we’re at with our environment today. Some people might think, “Well, does it really matter?”

It brings you back to the story of the starfish. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this before. There’s a guy walking down the beach. All these starfish have washed up on the beach and he’s throwing them back in the water. Someone comes up to him and asks him what he’s doing. He says, “I’m throwing these starfish back in the water, I’m saving their lives.”

The guy says, “Look at all these starfish. How could this even possibly matter?” The guy picks one up, throws it in, and says, “That mattered to that one, right?” Every little thing that we do, while it might not have that visible impact overall, it is having an impact.

Sarah: Absolutely. We built three bird boxes. What does that do? Dave Coker at Parnall is an amazing asset. He maintains the bird boxes. I need to get a session where I do just pick his mind and get all of that stuff documented because he has maintained those for so long.

You think of it that way, that’s one bird box. What does that do? It provides a nesting place for new birds or baby birds to grow. Those small things have an impact, a large impact.

Picking up one piece of trash could save a bird that tries to eat it. That saves a raccoon or a deer that gets a head stuck in a jar. There are a lot of things that feel so simple and so small that do have a larger impact if you zoom out.

Bill: There’s something in my head that I’ve got to ask you about. I get what a bird box is. What’s bat box?

Sarah: From what I understand, bats obviously have to go somewhere. They do it, just like a bird box, they just nest in the bat box. They provide just a habitat for bats in the area.

Bill: It’s basically a bird box, but for bats.

Sarah: For bats, yep. [laughs]

Bill: I was thinking something cool, like where Batman hangs out, but not quite.

Sarah: No. [laughs]

Bill: Good to know. It sounds like there’s a lot of cool things happening in the month of April, and then throughout the year. I would just encourage our audience to take a look at how you can celebrate the Earth, every month, every day, what’s that one little thing you can do, how can you help that starfish get back into the ocean.

Sarah, as often happens, we’re coming up on the end of the podcast. Before we go, I’d like to ask, what would you like the audience to take away from our conversation today?

Sarah: Just one final plug for the Green Teams. We’re doing a restructure this year. We’re focusing, trying to align with the company’s initiatives, going away from location-based.

Now that a lot of people are so virtual, hybrid, moving around, we want to really focus on topic based. We’ve got some new subcommittees that we’re waiting for people to join and add their input and their brainstorming power to.

Focuses are volunteering and community engagement. Employee outreach, we want more people to join. The green team’s people want more support throughout the company.

Waste reduction and greener grounds, which is a huge initiative, outdoor green spaces, reducing use of pesticides and herbicides, so my thing that I would want people to take away from is get involved.

The Green Teams might just be, I guess, a grassroots team, but we do have a big impact on those direct company goals. Join a subcommittee. Check out our SharePoint page.

Like you said before, it feels like a drop in the bucket but, sooner or later, it will make an impact. We do directly impact the company’s environmental goals and sustainability initiatives. That would be my advice.

Bill: Thank you for that, and true. Every drop counts because, at some point, the bucket does get full.

Sarah: Right.

Bill: Right? Thanks again, Sarah, for taking the time out to talk to me and talk to the audience today, exciting stuff.

Again, go out to the Volunteer Portal, check out the SharePoint site, get involved with your local Green Team. It sounds like there’s a lot of great things happening, and I look forward to us talking again.

Sarah: Thank you so much.