As Michigan Governor Looks Beyond Coal, Now Is the Time to Ramp Up Renewable Energy

January 22, 2015 | 4:28 pm
Sam Gomberg
Senior Analyst

Big changes to Michigan’s energy policy could be on the table in 2015. Governor Snyder gave a short peek into his energy agenda Tuesday night in his State of the State address where he stressed the need to transition away from coal as a main energy source in Michigan and announced plans to create a new Energy Agency.

The announcement couldn’t come soon enough as Michigan’s’ renewable energy standard — which requires the state’s utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy resources by 2015 — is set to expire this year. This policy has been a resounding success, with utilities achieving compliance more quickly and at less cost than expected when the policy passed in 2008.

Michigan can achieve significantly higher levels of renewable energy

Wind power in Michigan

Wind energy in Michigan has proven itself a reliable and affordable electricity resource. Photo: RTD Photography/Flickr

Both UCS analysis and a report from the Michigan Public Service Commission that was commissioned by Governor Snyder last year clearly show that Michigan could readily ramp up its use of renewable energy affordably and reliably to benefit the state’s economy, public health, and environment.

As we outlined in our report, Charting Michigan’s Renewable Energy Future, Michigan has sufficient in-state renewable resources — including wind, solar, and biomass — to generate several times the state’s total electricity demand. Capitalizing on these resources by strengthening the state’s renewable electricity standard to achieve at least 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 would come at little cost to Michigan consumers and would drive significant economic benefits in the state — approximately $9 billion in new capital investments to develop the state’s renewable energy resources as well as hundreds of millions of dollars annually to operate and maintain renewable energy facilities.

A strong policy should focus on the state’s robust renewable energy potential and avoid an over-reliance on natural gas

Michigan is home to some of the nation’s oldest and least economic coal plants and the governor is right to signal that it’s time to transition the state to cleaner, more sustainable and reliable energy sources. Last winter’s polar vortex proved that coal is not immune to reliability risks posed by extreme weather in the Midwest, as freezing temperatures impacted coal shipping lanes via rail and water.

Governor Snyder

Governor Snyder’s plan to transition Michigan away from coal should focus on the state’s robust renewable energy resources and look to avoid an over reliance on natural gas. Photo: Michigan Municipal League

But Governor Snyder and the Michigan Legislature should pass policies that ensure the state does not transition from an over-reliance on coal to an over-reliance on natural gas. While natural gas-fired electricity certainly has a role to play in our transition away from coal, relying too heavily on this resource is a risky proposition. Natural gas has a history of price volatility, and pipeline constraints can cause supply issues when demand increases, particularly during the winter months. Further, increasing demand for natural gas will put upward pressure on prices, potentially impacting industrial and manufacturing sectors that rely on affordable natural gas.

And it is important to remember that natural gas is still a fossil fuel, the burning of which emits significant amounts of carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. Studies have shown that a wholesale switch from coal to natural gas will not reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In addition, the natural gas industry is the largest industrial source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that traps 34 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period and 86 times more over 20 years.

For all of these reasons, a truly diverse electricity portfolio that takes advantage of the state’s robust renewable energy resources is the right path for Michigan.

The time to act is now

The clock runs out on Michigan’s current renewable energy standard this year. If this policy is not strengthened, the state’s utilities will have no incentive to continue investing in renewable energy. We know Michigan has the potential to significantly ramp up renewable energy beyond 10 percent, and we know it can be done while maintaining affordable electricity rates and a reliable electricity supply. The time to act on a strong energy policy is now.

To reap all the economic, environmental and public health benefits that renewable energy can provide, Governor Snyder and the Michigan legislature should be working this year to strengthen the state’s renewable electricity standard and give Michiganders the clean energy future they deserve.