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Opinion | An energy transition is coming to Michigan. We must manage it well

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Over the next 30 years, Michigan will see drastic reductions of fossil fuels used for heating, electrical generation and transportation. Apart from some specific commercial applications, the widespread use of coal and petroleum will taper and disappear from our everyday lives.

Doug Houseman is a principal consultant who specializes in the power industry and grid modernization at 1898 & Co., part of Burns & McDonnell. David DeLind is a section manager at Burns @ McDonnell, with over 14 years of experience in the electrical utility industry. (Courtesy photos)

If Michiganders try to follow the decarbonization model that the early-adopting states of California and Hawaii are following, failure is inevitable. Consequences of this failure will have direct impacts on the state, including widespread infrastructure damage to homes and water lines, increased energy and food costs, and an exodus of industries needing a more commercially viable marketplace. Instead of blindly following some of those early adopters, there is an opportunity to build Michigan’s energy future based on the state’s unique environment and natural resources. Michigan’s opportunities to “Go Green and Blue” just can’t be beat.

Most people don’t realize that Michigan hosts the largest natural gas storage facility in North America. Multiple retired gas fields in central lower Michigan are now used to store natural gas for use throughout the entire Midwest. Those same caverns are capable of storing renewable natural gas, such as methane collected from agriculture waste and landfills. Expanding the use of these caverns to also store “green” renewable gas — along with building several efficient, dispatchable, gas-fired power plants to replace much of the capacity of the retiring coal-fired power plants — will help protect lives, homes and fuel industries during and long after the transition to all-renewable power takes place.

Hydrogen is another likely major fuel source Michigan is well-positioned to take advantage of through depleted natural gas fields structurally composed of salt domes. These salt domes offer low-cost storage for hydrogen without the risk of embrittlement as hydrogen positions as the fuel of the future for larger ground, water and airborne vehicles.

If you’ve never been to the Ludington Pumping Station, you may not realize that a 50-year-old facility there stores as much energy as all the batteries currently installed in California, at about a tenth the cost, and has a substantially longer life than any known batteries. Michigan has geographic features that enable the ability to build and scale pumped storage hydropower facilities. Over Ludington’s life to date, operators have sorted out the wildlife habitat and recreational access issues raised by creating variable-level lakes connected to power generation.

Originally, Ludington was built to store and redistribute excess energy from the three nuclear plants in the state. With the closure of one of those plants, Ludington is now used to store excess renewable power generated during the spring and summer. This prevents a lot of the renewable power curtailment that would otherwise be needed.

With more than 10 GW of new solar in the installation pipeline, Michigan must build enough storage facilities to season-shift half or more of that power, or those solar cells will be turned off for hundreds of daylight hours each year. Not only does pumped water storage cost about one-tenth as much per kilowatt-hour of capacity as batteries — it doesn’t create hazardous waste when it’s “retired.”

Michigan owns more forest land than any other state, including Alaska. With active management by EGLE and the Department of Natural Resources, multiple ecosystems can be created and sustained by using logging to create open meadows that naturally return to forest over time.  Wind turbines could be installed, on towers tall enough to clear the returning trees, in the meadows close to existing power lines. Taking this approach sustains woodland ecosystems and produces the power needed for local industry, tourism and residents without leaving permanent scars in the landscape.

Properly located and backed up by adequate pumped water storage, wind turbines could power wide areas of the state and its vehicles through the coldest and darkest winter months, when solar production is at its lowest.

The fees paid by power generators for hosting turbines on their managed forest land could provide a welcome supplement for the budgets of UP schools, cities and county governments. Installing and maintaining the turbines would provide year-round skilled jobs in the UP, which are now in short supply. It would also justify creating a high-voltage power transmission loop around both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, improving the reliability and lowering the cost of electric power throughout the state.

There are many other unique opportunities for the energy future of Michigan. Focusing first on pursuing the opportunities where the state has a natural advantage will keep energy bills more reasonable as the transition away from fossil fuels continues. A next important step would be the Michigan Public Service Commission and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy signing on to structure and encourage cooperative projects among investor-owned utilities, rural electric co-ops, landowners and local units of government to create a Michigan-specific plan for the state’s energy future.

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