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Posts from the ‘clean energy’ Category

Latest headlines show renewable energy going mainstream

I start most mornings at MEC by browsing the day’s environmental headlines, mainly from email newsletters that I highly recommend—Midwest Energy News, InsideClimate News, Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate and Food and Environment Reporting Network, among others—so I’m used to seeing plenty of promising news about the rise of renewable energy.

But the past few days have been exceptional, energy news-wise. One story after another has driven home the reality that a future powered primarily by clean energy is not far off. It wasn’t so long ago that wind and solar were seen as feel-good gimmicks for the tree-hugging fringe, but those days are gone. You don’t hear them called “alternative energy” much anymore. Renewables have gone mainstream.

That’s good, because we need to shift away from fossil fuels, fast. Last year was the hottest ever recorded, marking three consecutive years of record-breaking warmth. (To see how much warmer than average your hometown was last year, check out this cool tool.)

Here are some of the renewable energy stories that grabbed my attention over the past few days.

Surge in solar installations

The news: New solar photovoltaic installations in the U.S. totaled a record 14.6 gigawatts in 2016. That’s almost twice what was installed in 2015, which was itself a record year.

Why it’s a big deal: For the first time, solar was the largest source of new electric generating capacity nationwide. It made up 39 percent of new capacity, more than natural gas (29 percent) or wind (26 percent). To be clear, capacity is how much electricity a power source is capable of producing, and is different from generation, which is how much power actually gets produced. Solar was still less than 1 percent of U.S. generation in 2015, though experts expect that number to double by the end of this year and continue growing steadily.

“What these numbers tell you is that the solar industry is a force to be reckoned with,” says Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Solar’s economically winning hand is generating strong growth across all market segments.”

 

Wind power sets a record

The news: For a short time on the morning of Feb. 12, wind power met more than half of electric demand for the region of 14 Western and Midwest states whose grid is overseen by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP). Read more

Michigan’s energy overhaul: What’s in it and how we got here

After more than two years of negotiations, countless hours of committee hearings, numerous variations on several bills, untold column inches of news coverage and a dizzying series of false starts, dead ends and shifts of the political winds, the epic effort to overhaul Michigan’s energy policy finally drew to a close Thursday evening.

Folks, we have a deal.

Here are highlights of the final package, which Gov. Snyder has said he will sign into law.

  • Requires utilities to ramp up their use of renewable energy from their current level of 10 percent to 12.5 percent by 2019, and 15 percent by 2021.  Once a utility achieves or exceeds 15 percent renewable energy, they cannot reduce that level of commitment unless they demonstrate it is in the best interest of ratepayers.
  • Creates a new program for customers who want more—or all—of their electricity to come from renewable sources. The Public Service Commission is tasked with establishing a new rate under this program.
  • Sets a goal of meeting 35 percent of Michigan’s energy needs through renewable power and energy efficiency by 2025.
  • Maintains the requirement that utilities reduce energy waste by at least 1 percent each year, lifts a cap on how much they can invest in waste reduction programs and increases financial incentives available to utilities for going above and beyond the energy efficiency standard.
  • Maintains, for now, the “net metering” program that allows customers to reduce their energy bills by generating power at home. The bills also abandon, for now, an earlier proposal for an arbitrary “grid access fee” on net metering customers, and instead tasks the Michigan Public Service Commission with designing a new rate structure for net metering customers in the future.  The new rate design will be crafted through a public process over the next year, and then be implemented in the spring of 2019 at the earliest.  A new rate design could combine net metering with time-of-use pricing—in which electricity is more expensive at times of higher demand—to better reflect the value of energy when it is generated and used.
  • Requires utilities to undertake “Integrated Resource Planning” to guide their investments so they meet long-term energy demand at the least cost. These plans would go through extensive review and compare both generation and demand management options to meet future demand.

As MEC President Chris Kolb said in a statement to the media, “These bills are a vast improvement over earlier proposals and will keep Michigan’s energy policy moving in the right direction…This deal will save millions of dollars a year for Michigan residents by continuing to eliminate energy waste and increasing investments in wind and solar power, which are the cheapest ways to produce electricity.”

And while we would have loved a deal that accelerated Michigan’s transition to clean energy, a review of the negotiations that led us here makes it clear that things could have been much, much worse. This is an important victory.

What follows is a summary of the major milestones on the road to the energy deal. As you’ll see, MEC has been at the table from the very beginning—thanks to our generous supporters—and our policy pros have worked relentlessly to win the best possible deal for Michigan’s energy future.

How we got here

May, 2014 – Sen. Mike Nofs announces Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Workgroup.

MEC Policy Director James Clift is named to this panel charged with reviewing Michigan’s 2008 clean energy laws and recommending updates. Those laws required Michigan utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2015 and achieve annual energy savings through efficiency measures. The workgroup meets throughout the summer of 2014.

July, 2014 – “Energy Freedom” bill package drops. Read more

Senate energy plan: Summer school needed to fix failing grades

The Michigan Senate is likely to vote this week on a pair of bills to reform our state’s energy policy. Throughout the debates leading up to this point, MEC has maintained that any credible strategy for Michigan’s energy future must accomplish five goals: control costs for utility customers; minimize the risks of future price spikes; protect natural resources and public health; promote economic development; and improve reliability.

Since it’s graduation season, we decided to use those goals as the basis for a report card on Senate Bills 437 and 438. (You can read this recent post for a more detailed analysis.)

Unfortunately, although they were recently revised, these bills still get failing grades. Without major changes, the Senate energy plan isn’t ready to graduate.

Report card for SB 437 and 438

Control costs. Michigan utility customers pay some of the highest rates in the Midwest. The current legislation would increase those costs by $4 billion over the next 10 years. The bills abandon the use of competition and the free market to control energy costs. They also repeal the renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that have been highly effective in reducing energy waste and controlling costs. This legislation would allow the utilities to hold on to the $120 million in renewable energy surcharges they don’t need, since renewables are now the cheapest energy sources.

Grade: F

Minimize risks.  Renewable energy is the cheapest electricity available from new facilities and offers fixed prices over a 20-year period because it is not dependent on fuel costs. However, these bills would scrap our wildly successful renewable energy standard. Utilities are guaranteed a profit of more than 10 percent on every dollar they spend to meet customer needs, but Michigan families and businesses will take on all the risks when those dollars are spent on utilities’ first choice—large, expensive new natural gas-fired power plants. Unfortunately, it seems many current legislators don’t remember when the per-unit price of natural gas skyrocketed from $2 to $15 between 2002 and 2005. By failing to lock in low and predictable long-term prices, these bills will put Michiganders at risk of sharp price spikes.

The bills would continue energy efficiency programs through 2021, which would reduce our overall need for energy and therefore reduce risks for ratepayers. Between 2009 and 2014, energy efficiency programs helped Michigan customers avoid the use of more than 6 million megawatt hours of electricity. The programs save Michiganders $4 for every dollar invested, a total savings of more than $100 million every year.

Grade: D

Protect natural resources and public health. Coal-fired power plants are the #1 source of air pollution in the country and are major contributors to climate change. Michigan’s renewable energy standard has helped to reduce our dependence on dirty coal, which provided two-thirds of our power when the standard was adopted and now provides only half. These bills will stall that progress by immediately repealing our renewable energy standard and phasing out our waste reduction programs over the next five years. Meanwhile, Michigan residents pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year to deal with the health impacts of dirty coal plants. Our asthma rate is 25 percent above the national average, and more than 100 Michiganders die prematurely from ailments tied to coal plant pollution.

The bills set a new goal for waste reduction and renewable energy, but the language is non-binding.

Grade: D-

Promote economic development. Michigan’s clean energy law triggered $2.9 billion in economic development in Michigan from 2008 to 2015. For the first time, our economy began to diversify beyond the automotive sector. We became a top state for clean energy patents. Energy efficiency service companies have sprouted up across the state. That growth is largely attributable to provisions in the 2008 law that half of renewable energy projects be built by private developers, rather than the utilities themselves, to promote competition and innovation. All of those benefits will go away under the current legislation. The bills would not only free the utilities from competing with other companies, but would also allow them to make money off energy they played no part in generating.

Grade: F

Improve reliability. The bills add new sections that attempt to ensure all energy providers have sufficient resources to serve their customers. It also recognizes that our regional grid operator is taking steps to improve overall reliability.

Unfortunately, the Senate package takes a step backward by hampering efforts to use time-of-day rates to take advantage of the advanced meters we have already paid for to reduce peak demand.

Grade: C-

With grades like these, it’s no surprise the Senate energy proposal faces stiff opposition from a broad range of players across the political spectrum. The Legislature breaks after this week for summer recess, but without major changes to these bills, it looks like summer school is in order.

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Top photo courtesy Theodore Scott via Flickr.

Other images adapted from photo by Jack Amick via Flickr.

Three key questions in Michigan’s energy debate

The Senate Energy and Technology Committee continues to deliberate on a package of bills that lay out a misguided approach to Michigan’s energy future—one that would suspend Michigan’s transition to cleaner energy sources, lead to major rate increases for Michigan families and throw a wrench in economic development in our state.

During three weeks of hearings on the bills last summer, strong opposition from MEC and many other groups made it clear that Senate Bills 437 and 438, as introduced, did not have the support to move forward.  Bill sponsors Sens. Mike Nofs and John Proos went back to the drawing board, and introduced substitute versions of the bills in late April.

Nofs, who chairs the committee, recently announced he had the votes lined up, but he now appears to again be working on new drafts. Such a broad range of groups have voiced opposition—environmental groups, energy efficiency contractors, major corporations (including Steelcase, Whirlpool, Johnson Controls and others) and even the conservative group Americans for Prosperity—that it’s hard to imagine the bills moving out of  committee without significant  revisions. Similar bills cleared a House committee last fall but have languished on the House floor.

Throughout this process, the issue of “electric choice” has been a major point of debate. (The term refers to the 10 percent of the state’s electric load allowed to come from alternative electric suppliers, rather than from utilities.) That small slice of the energy pie has dominated much of the discussion and disagreement between major industrial facilities and the utilities.

While energy choice is an important issue, the debate should not lose sight of the other 90 percent of our energy. The focus there should be on answering three basic questions:  How do we generate electricity? Who gets to generate it? And how much should we generate?

How do we generate it?

The case for making renewable energy Michigan’s go-to source of electricity is growing stronger all the time. For example:

  • The latest Michigan Public Service Commission update on the state’s renewable energy programs found that wind energy now costs less than half as much as it did in 2009.  More importantly, it costs less than any other new generation built today.
  • The MPSC also reported that more than $2.9 billion has been invested in renewable energy projects in Michigan since 2008, helping to diversify Michigan’s economy.
  • Michigan’s clean energy sector supports 87,000 jobs, according to a recent report.

Even setting aside jobs and investment—and the huge cost savings from the avoided health impacts of air pollution—it’s clear that renewable energy sources offer the best bang for the buck.  And yet, the current legislation proposes eliminating the state’s renewable energy standard.

Michigan’s electric utilities and supportive legislators have often claimed we don’t need a renewable energy standard, like the current one which required them to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. The companies say they’ll invest in more renewable sources as costs come down. So, with wind and solar at record-low prices, the utilities must be buying up clean power like crazy, right?

Wrong. DTE Energy has told shareholders it will develop 100 megawatts of wind power in 2019, but that will result in a minuscule .2 percent increase in renewable energy per year. Similarly, Consumers Energy’s plans for three new, 100-megawatt wind farms over the next decade will only increase its renewable portfolio by .25 percent annually (in contrast to the nearly 1.5 percent per year they built to reach the 10 percent renewable standard).

That’s why MEC and a growing portion of the business sector are advocating for including language in the legislation to set a clear expectation that utilities will continue to transition to clean energy sources.  We have proposed language clarifying that, if renewable energy prices exceed the cost of building and operating new natural gas combined-cycle power plants, the utility’s obligation to invest in renewables would cease. MEC is encouraging legislators to approve the next phase of clean energy by increasing our current 10 percent standard by 1.5 percent each year from 2017 through 2022. Read more

MEC staffer helps Traverse City schools harness the sun for energy and education

Editor’s note: Kate Madigan is MEC’s northern Michigan representative and climate and energy specialist.

Today I joined northern Michigan community leaders and Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) officials in a gym with 200 cheering elementary students to celebrate the completion of the first solar array installed on a school in Traverse City.

The morning started with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the 40 solar panels on the roof of Traverse Heights Elementary School that provide the school with sun-powered electricity, educational opportunities and much more.

“The solar panels are going to help fuel young minds and provide tangible ways to engage students in math and science, environmental stewardship and career exploration,” said Amy Six-King, principal of Traverse Heights Elementary School at the event. “We are appreciative of our community partners for their leadership in this effort, which provides our staff with a powerful tool to enhance teaching and learning.”

The leadership and can-do attitude of principal Six-King, who immediately saw the benefits to the school, were key to making this solar project happen.

This effort began more than a year ago when I got together with project leader Mary VanValin, a board member of the MEC member group Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and a retired TCAPS teacher, to write a grant proposal to put solar panels on the school. We worked with the TCAPS leadership team to come up with a plan and we quickly raised all the funds needed for the solar project.

“Excitement about solar energy is contagious,” VanValin said. “When we started talking about the clean energy benefits of solar power and the hands-on educational and cost-saving possibilities it can provide to a school, the community support for this project went through the roof.” Read more

On retirement day for some old coal plants, bad state policies keep others limping along

You may have noticed a lot of news stories lately about coal-fired power plants. That’s because—with federal regulations kicking in to protect public health—today marks the end of the operating permits for a number of coal plants in Michigan, including Consumers Energy’s oldest generating units, sometimes charitably described as the “Classic Seven.”

It’s good news that these coal plants are retiring—good for our health, good for our climate and good for our pocketbooks. In 2008, when Michigan enacted clean energy laws, 66 percent of our electricity came from coal. Thanks to those laws, coal now supplies less than half our electricity. With a continued, steady increase in affordable renewable power and energy efficiency, we can shrink coal’s slice of the energy pie to 35 percent by 2020.

Unfortunately, even as they retire their oldest power plants, our large, investor-owned electric utilities are still clinging to dirty coal. DTE Energy, for example, still generates over 70 percent of its electricity from coal and continues to spend millions of dollars a year to keep old plants operating, heaping the costs onto Michigan families.

And sadly, our Legislature is doing nothing to protect Michigan residents from skyrocketing energy bills or the public health impacts of dirty coal plants. Read more

Report finds rapid growth in Michigan solar jobs

Michigan’s solar industry employed 2,779 people in 2015, a 32 percent increase from 2014, according to industry data released Wednesday.

The ranks of solar employees in Michigan are expected to swell by more than 14 percent in 2016, compared to the state’s overall anticipated job growth of .4 percent, according to the Solar Foundation’s State Solar Jobs Census.

And, the report notes, job growth could be significantly greater in the year ahead, because the hiring estimates were based on employer surveys conducted before Congress extended the federal investment tax credit for solar in December.

Michigan ranked 18th among states for the number of solar workers, up from 20th place in 2014. California took first place with a stunning 75,598 jobs and added more than 20,000 solar jobs in 2015. Massachusetts, Nevada, New York and New Jersey rounded out the top five.

Michigan came out ahead of nearby states like Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but was topped by Midwestern neighbors Ohio with 4,811 solar jobs and Illinois with 3,483.

Nationally, the solar industry employs 208,859 workers, which is more than the total number of jobs in oil and gas extraction. The industry saw a more than 20 percent increase in nationwide jobs over the prior year—the third consecutive year of a better than 20 percent growth rate. Solar installation jobs pay well above the hourly wage for the overall U.S. work force, the report says. Read more

It’s getting hard to keep up with solar’s growth

News of the solar power industry’s growth has been so fast and furious lately that it’s hard to stay on top of it all.

President Obama on Wednesday announced $120 million in new federal investments in solar. “The initiatives focus on the Department of Energy, where the bulk of the funding will go to programs to develop solar power technology and get it into homes, businesses and other facilities,” The Hill reported.

The announcement follows a report earlier this month showing that U.S. solar passed the 20-gigawatt mark in the second quarter of 2015. (One gigawatt is enough to power about 164,000 homes.) The report predicts 7.7 gigawatts of solar will go online nationally this year alone.  In the first half of the year, 40 percent of all electric generation brought online nationwide came from solar.

Solar growth graph

Source: GTM Research / SEIA U.S. Solar Market Insight

Here in Michigan, you can get a feel for solar’s momentum just by scanning the headlines. Frankly, there have been too many announcements lately to keep track of, but here are some highlights:

  • Trustees at Michigan State University last week approved what—at this point, anyway—would be the state’s largest solar array. The 10-megawatt project calls for outfitting five campus parking lots with solar panel parking bays. The sun, you may have noticed, shines for free, so the university will lock in a fixed power price for the next 25 years—a move that could save the school $10 million on its power bills.
  • Also in Spartan country, Mayor Nathan Triplett said last week that East Lansing and the Lansing Board of Water and Light are closing in on an agreement for a community solar project. In community solar, residents subscribe to a portion of a solar array and receive a share of the returns based on their investment. It allows more residents to invest in local clean energy, even if they don’t have room on their property or in their budget for their own solar installation. “It’s no longer a question of if, but when community solar is coming to East Lansing,” Triplett said.
  • On Tuesday, officials from DTE Energy, Domino’s Farms and Ann Arbor Township dedicated what is now the state’s largest solar array. The 1.1-megawatt array of more than 4,000 panels is located at Domino’s Farms, just off M-14 near the interchange with U.S. 23. DTE also is building a 750-kilowatt project in Romulus and is planning an 800-kilowatt array in Ypsilanti. And the company has requested proposals for a project that will generate up to a whopping 50 megawatts and could be online by the end of 2016, the Detroit Free Press reports. Just to drive that point home: In about a year, what today is Michigan’s largest solar array could be dwarfed by an installation 50 times larger. Read more

At pivotal moment for climate, two Michigan marches seek action, justice

Two landmark marches for climate justice are coming up in Michigan.

First up is the West Michigan People’s Climate March in Grand Rapids, organized by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council—an MEC member group—and many partners. It begins at 12:30 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Sixth Street Bridge Park. To learn more, register or make a donation, click here.

Then, on October 3, people from across the state will travel to the Detroit March for Justice. That two-mile march from Roosevelt Park to Hart Plaza will begin at noon and wrap up around 4 p.m. RSVP for the Detroit march and find out more here.

The Detroit march is being organized by the Sierra Club and dozens of partners, including MEC and many of our member groups. The new Michigan Climate Action Network is mobilizing people from around the state, including organizing a bus from Traverse City.

We will march for environmental justice because those least responsible for pollution often suffer the worst consequences, such as in southwest Detroit, home to Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code, where many residents suffer from asthma and cancer. Families often cannot afford to move to escape pollution from the Marathon oil refinery, toxic coal plants and other industrial facilities built near their homes.

We will march for climate justice because poverty makes it harder for people to adapt to heat waves and recover from extreme weather events. This is true in Detroit, where thousands are still recovering from last year’s floods, and around the world, where the poorest countries are suffering the worst impacts of a changing climate. Read more

MEC joins clean air crusaders at Mama Summit

MEC rallied at the Capitol this week with dozens of concerned parents to educate legislators about the negative health impacts coal plants have on children.

It was the second annual “Mama Summit” coordinated by Moms Clean Air Force, a community of hundreds of thousands of parents advocating for children’s health. Participants gathered to share key facts and personal stories to build support among legislators for clean energy as a means to fight air pollution.

MEC Health Policy Director Tina Reynolds and Energy Program Director Sarah Mullkoff helped to plan the summit and took part in a press conference and other activities. Mullkoff also led the group discussion in five meetings—four with legislative staff members and one with a senator.

“It’s wonderful to see so many parents and advocates for children here at the Capitol to voice their support for clean energy and a healthy environment,” Mullkoff said. “One of the best things state leaders can do for the health of Michigan’s youngest residents is to transition away from dirty coal plants by increasing energy efficiency and investing in more renewable power.” Read more