The most tumultuous issue in Gov. Rick Snyder’s bid to reshape Michigan’s energy policy is the battle over whether to require power companies to generate a certain quota of electricity through renewable sources.
While environmentalists push for the expansion of a mandate that the major utilities get 10 percent of their electricity from such sources as wind and sunlight, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP legislative majority disagree.
“I don’t think that’s required,” Snyder said following a March speech in which he laid out his vision for new Michigan energy strategies.
“We need an adaptable energy policy that really looks at what’s going on in the marketplace and what’s going on with natural gas and renewable (energy) prices,” he said, adding that it should be “driven” by “economic decisions by individuals and the broad base.”
The governor also maintains that Michigan can achieve a 30- to 40-percent clean-energy goal by 2025 through a combination of increased use of renewables and energy-efficiency measures – what he calls elimination of waste.
Separate bills passed by the House and proposed by the Senate don’t call for increasing the renewable energy requirement lawmakers adopted eight years ago under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The House version keeps it at the current level while the Senate plan, unveiled this month, eliminates it.
The 2008 law requires 10 percent of Michigan’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources or energy efficiency and advanced clean energy technology by this year, after which the mandate expires.
Utility giants DTE and Consumers Energy are within a percentage point of meeting the requirement through central Michigan and Thumb region wind farms, but renewable energy supporters say this isn’t the time to back off.
“Michigan’s renewable energy standard has been a great success in protecting public health, our Great Lakes and our air,” said Mike Berkowitz, legislative and political director of the Sierra Club Michigan chapter. “… Now is the time for our state elected officials to increase Michigan’s renewable energy standard, not undo the progress we’ve made.”
Stanley “Skip” Pruss, principal of 5 Lakes Energy LLC consultants in Lansing, said mandates bring certainty for prospective investors in renewable sources and can foster energy innovation in Michigan.
But renewable critics such as the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy argue mandates are effectively subsidies for wind and solar power. If renewable energy costs are decreasing, their producers don’t require state quotas to compete, they say.
The Michigan Public Service Commission says the average age of Michigan’s energy-producing infrastructure is 48 years. It includes at least nine coal-fired power plants that will close in the next few years owing to age and tougher federal clean-air requirements.
“As we replace it, we need to seek the least-cost source of electric supply” that can meet requirements that include being available 365 days a year, Pruss said. “The cost trajectory for renewables is on a sharp downward trend … while cost of other energy infrastructure is generally going the other way.”
Focus on natural gas
Snyder sees natural gas as the integral power source filling the gap as Michigan’s aged coal-fired plants shut down. Officials of DTE and Consumers Energy recently gave a tour of Consumers’ gas-fired Zeeland Generating Station that is a model for it.
The 16-year-old plant, which Consumers bought from its Southern-states developer, contains four jet-engine-like turbines to produce – on demand – up to 930 megawatts, enough for a community of about 800,000 people.
It sits on 37 acres, “postage-stamp-size compared to most (coal-fired electricity) generating facilities,” said Zeeland Generating Station General Manager Gregg Baustian. It can rev up and power back down much faster than a coal plant, responding more nimbly to demands for more power or the lack thereof, he said.
Utility company executives argue such facilities can be the backbone for an array of new energy sources that also will rely more heavily on renewable power with or without a mandate.
“The technology’s getting better and evolving, large segments of the population are asking for it and we listen to our customers,” Baustian said. “… There’s 12,000 megawatts of wind generation in the Midwest. Fifteen years ago, there was almost none.
“People like us, people like DTE … put in 50 megawatts (renewable power) here, 100 megawatts there and, next thing you know, you’ve got the equivalent of 14 power plants through wind generation,” he said. “The only difference is that on the days when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun’s not shining, you’re still going to need what I call that iron in the ground.”
880 turbines in Mich.
In the last decade, wind power – the chief renewable energy source in Michigan – has been on a roller-coaster ride. Michigan has grown to have more than 880 wind turbines, the bulk of which are spread across the middle of the mitten. The landscapes of Mason, Gratiot and Huron counties are dotted with towering wind turbines.
But out in the countryside, enthusiasm for it is mixed. Several communities have sought to block proposed wind farms through measures such as stringent zoning rules.
Battles over turbines have cropped up in Huron County’s Paris and Lake townships, as well as Clinton County’s Bengal, Dallas and Essex townships. The Village of Garden, with a population of roughly 220, also had its own legal confrontation over a planned 14-turbine wind farm.
And in a May 5 election, 60 percent of local voters rejected the proposed expansion of DTE’s wind farm operations in Huron County’s Meade Township.
The last installation needed for DTE to meet its 10 percent mandate, the wind farm proposal was forced on the ballot by petitions from opponents. Then voters reversed what had been a 4-1 township board decision to approve the turbines.
Sen. Mike Nofs, the Battle Creek Republican-architect of the upper chamber’s plan, said he wants to replace the renewable energy mandate with more-flexible guidelines that allow future energy needs to be met through an array of clean-energy options.
His legislation would require the utilities to project energy needs and submit proposals for meeting them, updated every three years.
The Public Service Commission would be empowered to oversee a process under which bidders representing various energy sources could submit alternative proposals to supply all or part of the needed power.
“I’m not picking any source anymore,” Nofs said. “I’m going to let the industries and the marketplace choose what’s cheap, reliable and clean.”
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