Opinion: Michigan contemplates renewable energy

Terry Jarrett
"Wind and solar have a growing place, but natural gas and coal are still necessary to meet Michigan’s considerable baseload power needs," the author writes.

Along with the “Green New Deal” recently introduced in Congress, various states are now considering initiatives to incorporate more renewable energy. Michigan could jump headfirst into this movement if legislators pass House Bill 6466, which would require all of the state’s electricity to come from wind and solar by 2050. 

In such a heavily industrialized state, is this fully possible? Can Michigan go completely green, and what would it mean for the economy?

Right now, Michigan is among the top states in the nation in both population and total energy consumption. And Michigan generates 37 percent of its electricity from coal, with nuclear providing another 29 percent. Natural gas adds an additional 25 percent, and Michigan has more underground natural gas storage capacity than any other state. In fact, the Antrim Gas Field in the Lower Peninsula is one of the nation's top 100 natural gas fields.

Notably, renewables are also part of Michigan’s energy mix, with wind, biomass, hydroelectric, and solar power accounting for a combined 8 percent of total electricity generation in 2017.

All of this electricity matters, since Michigan’s industrial sector consumes a full one-quarter of the state’s total energy. That’s one reason a shift away from the state’s current mix of energy sources—including the security and reliability provided by coal and nuclear power plants—could have significant repercussions. 

Germany offers a helpful comparison, since it has been attempting a similar transition to renewable energy over the past decade. Despite massive subsidies, however, wind and solar power still meet only 29 percent of Germany’s total electricity generation. And getting to that point has already driven Germany’s electricity costs to roughly 30 cents per kilowatt-hour—the highest in Europe. In contrast, Michigan residents currently pay roughly 15 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity.

It’s not just rising surcharges that are driving up Germany’s electricity prices, though. Wind and solar perennially require robust back-up systems—for when the weather doesn’t cooperate. The Department of Energy estimates that even the most advanced wind turbines reach their full capacity only 42.5 percent. And the highest-performing solar panels—ones in the southwestern U.S. that feature sun-tracking motors—reach their full capacity an even lower 30 percent of the time. Filling in these gaps often requires on-demand energy from “spinning reserves” of natural gas and coal-fired power generation. 

Unfortunately, battery storage has yet to prove an all-purpose solution for such shortfalls. The best grid-scale battery technologies currently available can only provide hours of backup. That’s simply not enough to compensate during days—and even weeks—of low wind and solar output. 

The recent “Polar Vortex" demonstrated exactly this sort of unpredictability. When bitterly cold temperatures threatened to freeze gearboxes and shatter turbine blades, many utilities were forced to shut down their wind systems. In fact, turbines must be shut down entirely when wind gusts exceed 55 miles per hour. Michigan is certainly familiar with such conditions, thanks to harsh winds that sweep across the Great Lakes. While such gusts can provide substantial wind flow, they also drive chilling winter temperatures that immobilize wind turbine operating systems.

Michigan is right to explore wind and solar power. But the intermittency challenges posed by weather disruptions are a problem that must be surmounted. And Michigan lawmakers shouldn’t take for granted the reliability and affordability provided by the state’s current mix of fuel sources.

Wind and solar have a growing place, but it’s worth considering that natural gas and coal—particularly with newer technologies to enhance efficiencies and reduce emissions—are still necessary to meet Michigan’s considerable baseload power needs.

Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.