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Posts from the ‘climate change’ 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

Former MEC staffer is driving force behind ambitious plan for regional transit in Southeast Michigan

Ben Stupka is tired. That’s no surprise—he and his wife, Laura, have a two-year-old son and a daughter born in August.

But there’s another reason Stupka yearns for a nap. When he isn’t changing diapers or reading bedtime stories, he has another baby to nurture.

As Planning and Financial Analysis Manager for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan, Stupka led the development of a master plan to finally provide coordinated, high-quality public transportation for Metro Detroit, which today is widely recognized as one of the most transit-poor major cities in the country. A ballot measure in November will ask voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties to fund the plan with a 1.2 mill property tax over 20 years.

Now Stupka—along with MEC and many partners in Southeast Michigan—is working to engage and educate the public about the benefits of rapid, reliable, regional transit.

Obvious need

That part is relatively easy, Stupka says, because the shortcomings of the current system are so clear.

Metro Detroiters spend $69 a year per capita to support public transportation. In Atlanta, it’s $119. Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul spend $177. Seattle: $471. “We have fundamentally underfunded transit in this region,” Stupka says. “The results of that are pretty obvious.”

Nearly three quarters of people who work in the City of Detroit live outside the city limits, yet direct bus service between downtown and the suburbs is available only for six hours on weekdays, and not at all on weekends. The lack of coordination between the region’s transit providers means some commuters have to change buses at county lines. Detroit and Ann Arbor are completely disconnected by transit. The list goes on.

Ben Stupka

Ben Stupka

“Anybody who’s been anywhere with a good transit system looks around and says, ‘It’s so strange that we don’t have this,’” Stupka says

Some residents say they won’t use the improved transit services, but Stupka sees a light bulb go on when he tells them to think about their aging parents who might not be able to drive much longer, or nurses working third shift at Beaumont Hospital without a car. Others start to pay attention when he notes that transit projects typically return $4 for every $1 invested. “And frankly, with some people it’s, ‘Wouldn’t you love to go to a Tigers game and have a couple beers and not worry about driving home?’” 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

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

California’s gas catastrophe raises questions about Michigan’s vast storage fields

Editor’s note: News of the massive natural gas leak from an underground storage reservoir near Los Angeles made us curious about the implications for Michigan. We knew there were similar storage facilities here, but we’ve learned that Michigan has more of them than any other state. While state officials say those facilities are held to strict construction and maintenance standards, the California leak raises questions about Michigan’s ability to prevent a similar incident here. As we see it, the public safety and climate risks of underground natural gas storage are further cause for Michigan’s political leaders to make a strong commitment to clean and increasingly affordable renewable energy sources.

Update: At 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 8 we added new information about the inspection of storage wells. The update clarifies that the DEQ periodically inspects storage wells.

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As Southern California grapples with a massive natural gas leak some are comparing to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one expert says a similar disaster could happen in Michigan.

“The natural gas storage wells in Michigan are the same type as the one that is leaking in California, so yes, it could happen in your state too,” said Amy Townsend-Small, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati who studies methane emissions from the gas industry.

Thousands of residents have been evacuated from the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles after a leak was detected at an underground gas storage facility in October. Residents have complained of headaches, nausea and other health problems associated with an odorant added to the methane to make leaks more detectable. An attorney for residents says benzene and hydrogen sulfide also have been detected in air near the leak.

The leak also has become California’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. About 80,000 metric tons of methane—a far more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide—has escaped into the atmosphere, according to a real-time counter from the Environmental Defense Fund.

Michigan has more underground natural gas storage capacity than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Like the leaking Aliso

Storage field map

MPSC map of Michigan gas storage fields.

Canyon site, the storage facilities use depleted oil and gas fields to hold natural gas reserves.

The state’s top oil and gas official says Michigan has safeguards in place to prevent a similar disaster here.

“We’ve got some very strict, comprehensive safety standards for well construction and monitoring for gas storage in Michigan,” said Harold Fitch, chief of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals. Read more

MEC and Tip of the Mitt highlight policy options worth pursuing in new UM fracking report

The University of Michigan last week released a report three years in the making that offers a comprehensive review of Michigan’s policy options regarding fracking for natural gas and oil.

While fracking has been used for decades in Michigan, new techniques use far greater quantities of water and chemicals and pose greater risks to the environment and human health. Some recent fracking operations in Michigan have used as much as 21 million gallons of fresh water and more than 100,000 gallons of chemicals.

Many of the drilling sites are in pristine parts of Michigan known for their natural beauty, and it’s crucial to put the right policies on the books to protect these fragile areas that are the backbone of our tourism economy.

The Department of Environmental Quality updated its fracking regulations in March. The new rules are far from perfect, but they include some important provisions that reflect input from MEC and our allies during a public comment period on the draft rules. For instance, drilling companies now have to disclose what chemicals they’ll use before they inject them into the ground—not 60 days later, as previous rules allowed. The companies also are required to test water quality before drilling so they can be held accountable if contamination occurs.Fracking graphic

The impressive research project by UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute enlisted experts, decision makers and key stakeholders to outline policy options. It does not recommend any specific course of action, but by presenting a menu of options, including the pros and cons of those options, it offers valuable input that can help Michigan regulators improve the state’s oversight of fracking. Importantly, it also notes that not enough study has been done to quantify the risks of high-volume hydraulic fracking on human health and the environment.

You can read the full report here. It’s a big document with a lot to chew on. Fortunately, MEC Policy Director James Clift and Grenetta Thomassey—a member of MEC’s board and program director for MEC member Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council—served on the advisory board for the study and are well-acquainted with the report and the issues involved.

Using that inside knowledge, James and Grenetta pulled out of the 174-page report some key areas that deserve special consideration by Michigan lawmakers and the Snyder administration. MEC supports each of the following policy options, which we’ve categorized by topic and identified by the number assigned to them in the report and the page on which they appear.

Public notice and involvement

2.3.3.2—Increase public notice. (Page 42.) Pursuing this policy option would expand public notification when the state proposes to lease oil and gas drilling rights on public land. The state now issues public notice in newspapers, sends announcements to local governments and posts information on the Department of Natural Resources website, among other measures. This policy option calls for notifying all adjacent landowners and posting announcements at the parcel itself, if the land is used for recreation. As the report notes, “Expanding public notice offers a relatively inexpensive way to increase transparency about potential state mineral rights leasing and ensure that affected parties have an opportunity to comment.”

2.3.3.3—Require DNR to prepare a responsiveness summary. (Page 42.) Current rules do not require the DNR to respond to public comments on state mineral leases. The basic idea here is to require the department to compile a summary of public comments received, how the department responded to public input and how that input influenced DNR’s decision about whether and how to lease the rights on that parcel. As the report notes, such a requirement would strengthen the state’s accountability to the public. 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’s House Energy testimony: 5 takeaways

Spring temperatures aren’t all that’s heating up in Lansing. With Michigan’s 2008 clean energy laws set to plateau at the end of the year, policymakers are debating a handful of competing proposals for what our state’s energy future should look like. (We say “plateau” and not “expire” because, if lawmakers took no action, utilities would have an ongoing requirement to meet the existing standards.)

Gov. Snyder’s plan calls for as much as 19 percent renewable energy by 2025, along with a significant increase in energy efficiency and a shift away from coal and toward more natural gas. The Democrats have proposed generating 20 percent of Michigan’s electricity from renewable sources by 2022 and doubling the state’s annual energy savings from 1 to 2 percent.

Today the House Energy Policy Committee held a hearing on another package introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt, the committee’s Republican chair. The bills propose a number of actions that would turn back the clock on the economic development, cost savings and carbon reductions Michigan has achieved since 2008. For instance, they would repeal the energy efficiency standard and reclassify hazardous waste materials like scrap tires and railroad ties as “renewable” fuels.

MEC Policy Director James Clift and Energy Program Director Sarah Mullkoff testified at length during today’s hearing, making the case that Michigan needs a comprehensive energy plan that controls costs, maintains electric reliability, minimizes risks to ratepayers like you and me, promotes economic development in Michigan and protects natural resources. (You can view their presentation here.)

Here are five highlights from their testimony:

Households bear the brunt of energy costs. Electricity rates in Michigan have been increasing for years across sectors, but recently those costs have been shifted from large industrial users onto the backs of residential ratepayers. In fact, our residential rates are the highest in the region and among the highest in the country. If the Michigan Public Service Commission grants utilities permission to collect the rate increases they’re now seeking, our residential rates would increase an additional 15 percent over the next three years.  On top of that, Michigan taxpayers are subsidizing a fleet of old, inefficient coal plants whose performance is well below the industry average. Read more