Alternative energy growing in Michigan, but coal still king

Alternative energy growing in Michigan, but coal still king

Michigan is exploring ways to grow its alternative energy industry and provide a boost to economic development, but coal-fired power plants are expected to produce most of the state’s electricity through at least 2030.

The rest of Michigan’s electrical power comes mostly from nuclear power plants or natural gas- or oil-fired power plants. A very small percentage of the state’s power comes from wind turbines and other renewable resources.

Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource that cause pollution when burned to generate electricity. The long-term storage of nuclear waste remains problematic.

So Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued an executive directive in April calling for the development of a comprehensive plan that encourages the state to seek alternative and renewable sources of energy while ensuring that future electric power needs are met.

J. Peter Lark, chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission, was charged with putting together the 21st Century Energy Plan in cooperation with representatives from the private and public sectors.

A recently released draft touts the benefits of energy efficiency while noting the drawbacks, for at least the near future, of some forms of alternative energy.

Energy efficiency is a technology-driven process using building and infrastructure improvements so that less energy is required to provide the same level of service to a consumer. It differs from energy conservation, which is a scaling back of energy usage that is usually temporary.

“Michigan could implement a new statewide electric energy-efficiency program having considerable scope and impact on electric use in Michigan,” according to the draft.

Renewable energy sources, including solar and wind power, generate approximately 3 percent of the energy now sold to Michigan utility customers. But the high cost and low capacity factor of solar power make it relatively uneconomic, while uncertainties about markets, interconnection costs, and government and utility policies have slowed new wind-energy development in the state, the draft says.

In response, a coalition of environmental organizations led by Ann Arbor-based Public Interest Research Group in Michigan told Lark in a letter that energy efficiency and the development of the state’s renewable energy resources “should be the core strategy for meeting Michigan’s long-term energy needs.”

Despite projected sharp increases in the use of biofuels and other renewable energy sources, coal is still expected to account for about two-thirds of the nation’s total energy supply by 2030, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report released in December titled Annual Energy Outlook 2007.

More than 36 million tons of coal are used each year by Michigan’s 20 coal-fired electric power plants, making it the eighth-largest coal consumer among states, according to the American Coal Foundation, an educational organization supported by coal producers and manufacturers of mining equipment and supplies.

U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra spends a week each summer taking a bicycle tour of his 2nd District and meeting with constituents to discuss a pressing issue. This year, it was alternative energy.

The Republican from Holland said at a stop during his bike tour last August that he believes there will be “tremendous innovation and investment in energy in the U.S. over the next 15 years,” and Michigan should use its strengths position itself as a leader among states.

“What Michigan needs to make sure of is that when we as a nation invest billions in alternative energy, that we’re not sitting on the sidelines, that we’re somewhere else,” Hoekstra told a small audience at a wind-power forum at Shelby High School in Oceana County. “We need to be a player in here.”

John Sarver, a supervisor at the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growth’s energy office, worked on the state’s energy plan and says Michigan needs a diverse set of energy resources.

Winds blowing across Lake Michigan have the potential to produce enormous amounts of electricity — perhaps as much as the entire state now uses — but it would mean building giant wind turbines offshore to capture the energy.

“The shorelines of the various lakes, and the Thumb, are showing up as the best areas for development,” Sarver said during the Shelby forum.

Michigan now has three wind turbines: one in Traverse City and two in Mackinaw City.

Essex, Conn.-based Noble Environmental Power LLC plans to build a wind farm of up to 32 turbines in the state’s Thumb region, near the village of Ubly in Huron County. Construction should begin by late 2007 and continue into 2008, said company spokeswoman Julie Harker-Leigh.

While much of the discussion in Michigan is about using wind to create electricity, it’s not the only source on the table.

The Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon, which is operated by Grand Valley State University, is working on using cow manure. The center plans to install a small power plant at a dairy farm near Ravenna that will use an anaerobic digester to convert cow manure into energy and could be in operation by next summer.

The demonstration project will convert manure into methane gas and subsequently into electricity. It will produce, as a byproduct, a nutrient-rich fertilizer free of pathogens and odors, said executive director Imad Mahawili.

Manure will be kept in a giant tank for an average of three weeks at a temperature of around 98.6 degrees. The tank contains a giant mixer and microbes that will break down the waste, creating a gas that is 60 percent methane.

That gas will have the hydrogen sulfide removed to eliminate its sour smell and power a turbine that will generate electricity used at the dairy.

The Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club isn’t sure the project is worth it. Director Anne Woiwode questioned the machine’s ability to remove odors from the gas and said anaerobic digesters, also known as biodigesters, do not solve the pollution problems associated with the large amounts of manure found at major dairy operations.

The project is being funded with a $1 million grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission and $1.2 million from the den Dulk Dairy, where it will be built.

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