Michigan may have already harvested its low-hanging fruit on renewable energy. Opportunities exist to greatly expand cleaner energy sources statewide, but they will come with more challenges.
Michigan this year met a goal, set in state law in 2008, to generate 10% of its power from renewable sources. No similarly set-in-law renewable mandate exists going forward.
Gov. Rick Snyder in March laid out a renewable energy plan calling for the state to meet up to 40% of its power needs through energy waste reduction, increased use of natural gas and renewable energy sources such as wind and biomass (plants and plant wastes converted to fuel).
Snyder emphasized energy waste reduction as a key to meeting Michigan’s future energy needs. Expanded use of technologies such as smart metering allow for better tracking of energy usage and waste in homes and businesses, giving customers information to make energy usage decisions in real time, Snyder noted.
“The most affordable energy you can ever get is the energy you never use,” he said. “You didn’t need to build the power plant; you didn’t need to buy the fuel; you didn’t need the transmission system.”
Waste reduction could account for 15% of the energy Michigan would otherwise use by 2025, Snyder said.
Enough wind energy to power the state?
Michigan has banked heavily on wind to meet its present and future renewable energy needs.
Wind surpassed biomass as the state’s primary renewable energy resource last year, with the state in the top five nationally for adding capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Michigan’s 20 utility-scale wind farms and total capacity of more than 1,500 megawatts place it 18th among U.S. states for wind energy generation. Michigan’s wind resource has the potential to produce more than 500,000 gigawatt hours of electricity annually, nearly five times Michigan’s entire 2012 electricity demand, the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists found in a report last year.
But Huron County, part of the Thumb area designated Michigan’s “primary wind energy resource zone” through state law due to its wind energy generating capacity, is growing uncomfortable with the pace and proliferation of large turbines and the conflicts they are causing near some neighbors. The county has 328 turbines, more than all other Michigan counties combined, with plans for even more.
Huron County commissioners earlier this month voted to enact a six-month moratorium on wind energy development, as they look to revise ordinances that one commissioner called “inadequate.”
“There were too many of them, too quick,” Huron County Board of Commissioners Chairman John Nugent earlier told the Free Press. “It ended up with people’s rights being violated – setbacks were a problem with a lot of people; they were too close to their home. And they infringe on the shoreline, which is unacceptable.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended no wind turbine development occur within 3 miles of the Great Lakes shoreline, due to its crucial role in bird and bat flyways, including eagles and other threatened or endangered species. But Geronimo Energy’s proposed Apple Blossom Wind Farm project calls for up to 20 turbines as close as 2 miles to Lake Huron.
At another wind project – Heritage Garden Wind Farm in Delta County’s Garden Township in the Upper Peninsula – nearby residents sued the developer, claiming negative impacts on their quality of life and environmental impacts. They’re also seeking to halt further expansion of the 14-turbine farm on a peninsula near northern Lake Michigan.
Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing sources of impacts to wildlife, said Jeff Gosse, regional energy coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The Department of Energy has stated a goal to increase wind development five-fold over what we’ve got right now,” he said. “That’s part of our concern, not that a wind turbine is taking birds and bats, but when you build more and more and they face more and more unsafe areas to fly.”
Reducing coal dependence
Like many historically industrial Midwestern states, Michigan is heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants to meet its energy needs. But the state is in the midst of a significant shift away from coal, spurred largely by federal mandates to reduce power plant-related emissions of carbon and mercury and other air toxins.
Michigan is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 31% over 2012 levels.
DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest power utility with more than 2.1-million customers, announced plans last year to retire a third of its coal-fired generation, more than 2,000 megawatts, by 2025, and rely more on natural gas and renewables, mostly wind. Consumers Energy announced plans to close seven older, coal-fired power plants, totaling just under 1,000 megawatts in capacity, by 2016.
Snyder projected a reduction in coal-produced energy in Michigan from 54% now to 34% in 10 years. The power plants are largely transitioning to natural gas – a crucial player in Michigan’s cleaner energy future, because of the state’s unique gas capacity.
Michigan has more underground natural gas storage capacity – 1.1 trillion cubic feet – than any other state. DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, the state’s two major utilities, use the capacity to purchase natural gas in summer months when it costs less for use in the heavy demand time of winter.
Problematic pipeline system
But natural gas also comes with concerns. It’s moved around the state in a pipeline system that is old and crumbling.
DTE gas leak surveys showed average counts of hazardous leaks, the kind requiring immediate attention, quadrupled to 1,248 from 2006 to 2010. More than a quarter of the leaks in that average were caused by corrosion, according to data provided by the utility to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, or PHMSA, the regulator of pipelines nationwide.
Michigan has about 3,000 miles of wrought and cast-iron natural gas pipelines, the kind considered most at risk for catastrophic rupturing, and DTE and Consumers replaced only about 15% of those pipelines over the past decade. While both utilities have adopted programs to speed up pipeline replacement, residents still face a long wait – in some cases estimated at up to 25 years or more – for fixes outside their door.
Another more than 60-year-old pipeline has particularly drawn concern: Canadian oil transport giant Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, which runs underwater in the Straits of Mackinac.
Enbridge transports light crude oil, light synthetic crude and natural gas liquids through the line. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant and State Attorney General Bill Schuette are conducting a statewide review of pipeline safety, with a particular focus on Line 5.
More work to do
Despite any challenges, the state has plenty of room to grow on the clean energy front, said James Clift, policy director with the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council. The council supports Snyder’s target of 24% renewables in the state by 2025.
“We have been slowly committing to renewables, during that transition,” he said. “We think keeping with that steady transition is good for ratepayers.”
Natural gas prices are low now, but in recent years have been as much as three times higher, Clift noted.
“That says let’s keep investing in (renewables),” he said, “because that will reduce risk from price spikes.”
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