Thanks to improvements in technology, Michigan utility companies should be capable of tripling their renewable energy use by 2035, according to a report issued Friday by the Michigan Public Service Commission and the Michigan Energy Office.
The report says Michigan could reasonably raise its standard, requiring utilities to get 30% from renewable sources by 2035. In 2008, the Michigan Legislature passed a new energy law requiring utilities to get 10% of their electricity generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2015.
“Wind technology has, in particular, advanced significantly,” said John Quackenbush, chairman of the MPSC. “We are able to get higher capacity factors and more production out of wind turbines than anyone thought was possible in 2008.”
In 2012, environmentalists failed to get a constitutional amendment passed that would have increased the renewable portfolio standard to 25% by the year 2025. Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged after the election last November that while he didn’t support the 25-by-25 ballot proposal, a higher renewable standard might not only be achievable, but appropriate as well.
“We will have reached our 10% goal for renewable energy (by 2015) ... so we will be in a good position to set higher goals,” he said in a November speech on energy and the environment.
He ordered the Michigan Public Service Commission and the state’s energy office to complete studies in four areas: renewable energy, efficiency programs, electric choice and additional areas related to energy. The renewable study was the first to be released.
Many public comments on the draft report raised concerns over wind and solar power’s intermittent nature, and how energy supplies can avoid interruption when it’s not sunny or windy, Quackenbush said. But according to MISO, the Midcontinent Independent Service Operator, which delivers electricity to most of Michigan as well as 15 other U.S. states and the Canadian province of Manitoba, “They are confident we can go up to that” 30% renewables “level without causing reliability problems,” he said.
Michigan also is home to the fourth-largest pumped hydroelectric facility in the world, the Ludington Pumped Hydro facility, Quackenbush said.
“When the wind is blowing, we use it to pump water up the hill,” he said. “And later on, when the wind isn’t blowing, we can flow water down the hill and generate power that way.”
Both Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, which provide electricity to the vast majority of Michigan residents, are well on their way to reaching the 10% goal.
DTE submitted a request with the MPSC earlier this month to approve a purchase contract with the Big Turtle wind farm in Huron County that will generate 20 megawatts of power for the utility, said Scott Simons, spokesman for DTE. That project is expected to be completed and operating sometime next year.
“And with that we’ll be at 9.8%,” he said. “As far as wind and solar, it’s been a good investment for us. The technology has really improved and helped us achieve our renewable goals faster than we expected and at a lower cost.”
Consumers’ energy portfolio has, for years, included electricity from 13 small hydroelectric plants around the state. The utility built its first wind farm in Mason County last year — a $250-million project that has 56 turbines that generate 103 megawatts of electricity. A second wind farm is scheduled to go up in Tuscola County later this year, said Consumers’ spokesman Dan Bishop.
“Right now, we’re at 8%, and when the Tuscola County project comes on line next year, that will get us to 10%,” he said.
Both utilities have benefited from one of the newest and largest wind farms in the state. The landscape in Gratiot County, about 45 minutes north of Lansing, is now dotted with 167 wind turbines generating 293 megawatts of power. The turbines are split between two projects, one of which is co-owned by DTE. The other generates power for Consumers.
“We began an awareness and educational exploration of commercial-grade wind power about five years ago,” said Don Schurr, the county’s economic development director. “It was a very deliberative look at things to make the development happen without it being a huge controversy.”
As a result, there was little of the push-back from residents who might be opposed to the behemoth windmills. In other areas, there have been huge fights over noise, light flicker and the aesthetics of the windmills. But in Gratiot, both farmers who have the windmills on their property and their nearby neighbors are paid royalties from the turbines. Twenty more turbines are expected to be built in the next year in Gratiot.
“And now there’s more cash for the locals,” Schurr said, noting that Gratiot has had one of the biggest jumps in state equalized value in the state since the turbines went operational in 2012. “And we’ve had gains from having the additional constructions investments in the community.”
The energy is getting cheaper for the utilities and, as a result, their customers. The utilities were allowed to charge a monthly surcharge to help pay for increasing the amount of energy from renewables. DTE’s monthly charge was $3 a month, while Consumer charged $2.50. Both have submitted requests to the MPSC to lower that surcharge —DTE to 43 cents and Consumers to 52 cents.
But the utilities are more cautious about increasing the standards. Wind is the most efficient source of renewable energy, Simons said, but finding places to site the turbines is problematic.
“We want to see what happens by 2015,” he said. “What kind of technology is available, and how much does it cost.”
Bishop notes that wind farms have a reliability rate of 30% to 40%, meaning that 30% to 40% of the time, the windmills are making electricity. Traditional power plants, using nuclear, coal or natural gas, have a 95% reliability rate.
“Clearly there are people who are passionate about renewable energy, and it plays an important role in Michigan’s electric supply,” Bishop said. “But what customers want is reliability and affordability, so we need a blend of both.”
The renewable energy report is now open to a new round of public comments, and all four studies are slated for completion by November, Quackenbush said. Comments can be left until 5 p.m. Oct. 16 at www.michigan.gov/energy.
Environmental groups applauded the report’s findings.
“This report unambiguously shows that investing in more renewable energy is good for Michigan ratepayers and good for our economy, public health and environment,” said Chris Kolb, Michigan Environmental Council president, in a statement.
“While Michiganders have shown they’re willing to pay a little bit more to protect our children and natural resources from the toxic emissions from power plants, this report shows that we are actually paying less — not more — for clean energy.”