BY NOLAN BIANCHI
Last winter, more than 10 percent of Michigan residents were forced to endure a brief portion of the season that featured 68 m.p.h. winds and single-digit temperatures without the benefit of electricity in their homes. Here’s the good news: It wasn’t for a lack of resources. Well, sort of. Currently, coal-fired energy is the most predominant energy source in Michigan. Along with petroleum, these fossil fuels have long had a stranglehold on the state’s electricity production. But recent trends pronounce an expiration date for the old guard, making way for an evolving blend of renewable energy options for Michiganders.
Coal’s prevalence in energy sourcing has declined since the beginning of the millennium. Accounting for 77.8 percent of the state’s electric utility net generation at the end of 1999, coal made up just 39.7 percent of the same statistic in July 2017. Meanwhile, renewable energy is up 7.1 percent in the same time span (Energy Information Administration/Electric Power Monthly).
If there’s any confirmation to be had from these numbers, it’s in recent actions of Michigan energy giants DTE Energy Co. and Consumers Energy Co.
DTE spokesman Brian Corbett predicted at the 27th annual Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in October that the energy company would not be sourcing any of its energy from coal by 2020. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, both DTE and Consumers are planning to invest in natural gas and renewable energy during the coming years.
But what does that mean for residents of Michigan?
A cleaner ecosystem, for starters. The environmental benefits of prioritizing this type of shift are well documented: Reduced emissions, greater depth within the energy production asset base, and an overall improvement in air quality are prompting business and residential consumers to take an interest in alternative energy options.
As consumers demand more renewable energy, then, providers can use this interest to their benefit by heralding programs that indicate an alignment of values with those who envision a day where 100 percent of the nation’s electricity is generated through renewable means.
Of course, there are economic benefits, too. There have to be.
That’s where companies like Novi-based ITC Holdings, Corp. step in. One of the nation’s largest independent electricity transmitters, ITC supplies power to DTE and Consumers, among other distributors. The company is determined to strengthen the nation’s electricity transmission network — otherwise known as “the grid” — through the development of transmission infrastructure.
The strains placed on distribution systems, following the windstorms of March 2017, resulted in widespread outages. In response, ITC crews from the surrounding states were called on to assist customers in restoring service.
Overall, ITC is optimistic about Michigan’s energy future, and its financial investments are testament to this outlook.
“ITC has invested more than $3.5 billion in new or updated transmission facilities in Michigan since 2003,” said Simon Whitelocke, vice president of ITC Holdings Corp. and president of ITC Michigan. “These investments have saved ITC Michigan customers $111 million between 2010 and 2015 resulting from decreased system congestion and greater market efficiencies.”
Whitelocke added that according to global consulting firm IFC International, “Our investments in transmission projects across the ITC Michigan footprint, including ITC’s 140-mile Thumb Loop Project, enabled wind farms to be optimally located, resulting in customer savings of $250 million between 2008 and 2014 in avoided renewable energy costs.”
But despite the fact that renewable energy celebrates an infinite amount of resources in principle and an equally appealing cost, a lack of infrastructure makes it difficult for the field to keep pace with the electricity demands of a society that’s aggressively dependent on technology with a plug.
“In Michigan we are well positioned to connect a growing amount of renewable energy to the transmission grid,” said Whitelocke. But in ITC’s Midwest system, he notes, “actual wind energy output routinely exceeds demand.”
This means that the ability to transport renewable energy hasn't yet caught up with generation efficiency.
“When power generation exceeds local needs it is routed to other parts of the region, however this generation must often be curtailed due to lack of interstate transmission infrastructure,” said Whitelocke. “Today, wind developers are building facilities in rather remote areas where wind is plentiful but demand for energy is low. These wind farms are dependent on electric transmission infrastructure to move power from where it is generated to where it is needed.”
An overwhelming benefit of renewable energy is the allocation of production costs. Rather than pouring capital into day-to-day operations like coal-sourced electricity, companies generating renewable energy invest in a system, one that provides a stable construction market, leaves customers with more money in their pockets, and can catch the eye of corporations looking for a home.
“Reliable, affordable power is important to attracting and maintaining businesses and creating jobs throughout Michigan,” said Whitelocke, adding that ITC’s involvement in university research has paid big dividends for the field’s job market in the state.
“To help fill the pipeline, ITC supports STEM-based programs from the elementary level all the way up to the collegiate level, where we collaborate with major universities, including Michigan Technological University and Lawrence Technological University for example, on their power engineering programs,” Whitelocke explained.
Resources such as natural gas do have their benefits, but the general trend of energy sourcing says that most consumers want renewable energy to power their homes and businesses. While it will be an uphill battle, such a future is feasible. Earlier this year, Germany went 100 percent renewable for 36 hours.
In the meantime, Michigan’s energy leaders will continue to push toward a more reliable energy system through development of the grid while incorporating all of its resources.
“More important than connecting renewable generation is ensuring that the grid has adequate capacity, and is reliable and resilient, to fully carry that generation to customers,” said Whitelocke. “Looking ahead, there is still much work to be done from a regional planning perspective to ensure the grid of the future continues to meet the challenges and opportunities of a changing energy mix and advancing technologies.”
But with the environmental assets Michigan has, it’d be no surprise to see the state spearhead a national prioritization of renewable energy – which means it may be coming soon to a home near you.