Thinking Realistically about Michigan’s Renewable Energy Future Part I
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- Jan 8, 2020 6:30 pm GMTJan 8, 2020 6:50 pm GMT
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This is part I of a 3-part series that looks holistically at Michigan’s needs and position with regard to the environment, manufacturing and research capabilities. Too often articles generalize to national needs, or they look at one aspect. State governments and regulators seldom get a state focused, system view of what is needed, so state laws and regulations seem to be patchwork, based on what is top of mind now, instead of what is needed long-term. This article could be replicated for any state, I choose Michigan, because that is where I grew up and make my home. This portion is about the overall need and generation, the two following pieces cover storage, innovation, research, transportation, buildings and equipment. Enjoy.
Introduction and Background
Michigan is a state blessed with both natural resources and many beautiful natural features. This is a mixed blessing as we look for ways to meet the energy requirements in the future. Many people do not want to see, hear, or have to think about where their energy comes from and they definitely do not want energy infrastructure to intrude into their favorite natural areas. But even the most ardent supporter of wilderness areas still wants the comfort and freedom that energy use provides at home, the ability to travel, and access to the complete range of goods and services that require energy to provide.
We could, as a state, shut down manufacturing to reduce our energy use, but that would wreck the state’s economy and drive a large segment of the population out of the state. We could shut down tourist attractions to reduce driving and offer virtual reality visits instead, but again, that would seriously damage the state’s economy. So, for the purpose of this article, we will assume that the state’s economy continues to be based primarily on manufacturing, tourism, and farming, plus the other, less pervasive activities that currently provide jobs for Michigan’s residents.
Michigan uses fossil fuels of some form to power most of the state’s economy; gasoline, propane, coal and other forms of fossil fuel power our homes, stores, offices, factories, and transportation. While the state has some renewable resources and some nuclear power, the vast majority of the energy we use now is still fossil based.
Roughly 1/3 of our current energy from fossil fuels is used for transportation. Another 1/3 generates electricity, which is used for many purposes, including a very small but growing share of our transportation needs. The final 1/3 of our fossil fuel usage is as feedstock or as material for manufacturing, for power and chemicals used on farms, and in other activities.
Technology exists to convert most personal transportation to electric vehicles. Technology also exists to move all or most electricity generation over to renewable sources. Maximum application of the existing and near-future technologies could move electricity up to 80-90% of the total energy consumed in Michigan and generate renewable fuels (renewable natural gas, bio-diesel, etc.) to become feedstocks, lubricants, etc. that make up the balance of our current energy usage. Most plastics come from fossil sources today, but many could be made from soybeans or other plants in the future.
Seasonality of Power Sources and Demand
In Michigan the sun shines much less in the winter than in the spring, but the state uses much more energy in the winter than in the spring. To allow solar power to replace some fossil fuel sources for electricity and space heating, the extra energy that could come from sunlight in the spring would have to be stored somehow until fall or winter for use. Or we would have to build extra solar facilities to produce the energy needed in the coldest and darkest time of winter, then turn them off when they over-produce during the spring and early summer. Either of those options add to the cost and the potential intrusiveness of solar power on our neighborhoods.
The wind blows more steadily than the sun shines during most of the year, but during Polar Vortex and Summer Inversion conditions – the two weather conditions when heating or cooling are most needed -- the wind nearly always decreases or dies completely. Again, significant amounts of energy storage will be needed to allow wind energy to replace fossil fuels as a reliable source of electric power to Michigan homes and businesses.
Almost all of Michigan’s rivers are suitable for canoeing and kayaking. They don’t offer the hundreds of feet of drop that the mountain rivers on either coast of this continent do, reducing our ability to make massive amounts of energy from hydroelectric plants built into big dams. Many Michigan rivers do offer modest power generation capacity at existing dam locations, but dozens of dams that already exist do not have turbines installed in them to produce energy. Newer, more effective hydroelectric generation at existing dams, especially the dams that already have grid connections because they were originally built to produce hydropower, is a relatively easy step to take to expand Michigan’s renewable energy generation portfolio.
Lakes Michigan and Superior offer the potential to harvest wave energy, although this technology is still experimental. But wave power generating stations would have to overcome significant public resistance, because of their potential conflict with recreational activities like swimming, sailing, fishing, and diving. Similar widespread unhappiness has been displayed anytime someone has seriously proposed wind turbines either in the Great Lakes or along the shoreline. Depending on siting decisions and the exact technology involved, wave power might not be available when the area where the generator is located is iced over. This is an important consideration given the past decade’s experience with the greater recent frequency of extremely cold winter temperatures and the Great Lakes return to the proportion of winter ice cover reported in the early 20th Century
While forests cover much of the state, clear cutting selected forest areas and replanting on a sustainable rotating basis would not provide more than a fraction of the total amount of energy required by our (not face cords) of wood a year. This amount of wood, if consumed by each household would exceed the production of all the sustainably harvested forests in Michigan by a factor of 5. Though wood can’t meet all our energy needs, we could fairly easily collect and use some of the 300 million cubic feet of wood that dies each year in Michigan forests for either direct heating, pelletizing for heating, or steam generation.
The most productive option for wind power is also the most opposed, offshore wind in the Great Lakes. That means installing a series of large 10 to 15-megawatt turbines on 500 to 800-foot-tall towers. Models and simulations based on actual wind strength measurements show up to a 50 percent capacity factor. That means the offshore turbines would produce electricity up to 50% of the time if they are customized to work with the offshore winds in their location. With 3 or 4 rows of them running along the shore of Lake Michigan from Michigan City, Indiana to the tip of the lower peninsula, the turbines could produce 6 Gigawatts of energy and over 21 Terawatt-hours of electricity per year, about 8 percent of a totally electrified Michigan. With good design and planning the number of turbines that could be placed may be able to be doubled, increasing the annual energy production to as much as 35 terawatt hours These large turbines offer a chance for Michigan to add a significant number of jobs, building the towers and blades within the state and shipping them from the shore to the installation site. With the fall off in boat production in the state, the existing workforce for boat construction could be repurposed to make the blades, the basic skills of creating a boat hull out of composites and making a wind turbine blade are very similar. With blade lengths of 200 feet or more, building them on the lakefront makes sense from a transportation standpoint. If the initial build out was done over a 10-year period, enough experience could be built to complete for other locations, and the St. Laurence Seaway offers a way to get the structures to almost any location in the world. Installation vessels could be built in the Upper Peninsula at an existing shipyard, bridging the military contracts that normally occupy them. Towers would have to be built in pieces, but if done along the lakeshore they could be created in larger pieces than if they were built elsewhere, reducing cost and assembly time on site. Again, a win for Michigan jobs.
Of course this could only be done, if agreement was reached with the opposition groups within the state and elsewhere, but it is worth the attempt for the amount of low-cost, environmentally friendly power these turbines would produce and the high paying steady jobs they would create in the state.
Smaller wind turbines – 300-400 feet tall – could be installed in Michigan’s thumb area and along the shore in both the lower and upper peninsula. The offshore turbine work and installation vessels would make delivery for near shore work less disruptive than transportation on the highway system for long distances. While these turbines would produce less power each year, they would be designed to take advantage of a slightly different wind profile and provide diversity of location, helping to create a more level supply of power. This type of smaller turbine has the potential to generate 4-15 Gigawatts of power annually, depending on what zoning allows, what the Federal government allows to be installed on Federal lands and where the necessary infrastructure is built to collect, transmit and store the energy from the wind turbines.
Many people assume that solar is the best choice for renewable energy. The panels generally do not move, can be installed on rooftops where they won’t be seen or close to the ground where they can be hidden from most passers-by, making the infrastructure for energy creation mostly invisible. But let’s be honest, there is not even close to enough rooftop area in Michigan to support the amount of solar power we will need to meet the expected demand.
Typical solar sites in Michigan take approximately 5 acres per megawatt of capacity and produce approximately 1250 megawatt-hours per year or about 250 Megawatt-hours per acre per year. Michigan consumes 110 Terawatt-hours per year. As we move more and more of our transportation to electric vehicles, the total number of Terawatt-hours needed to serve Michigan’s population will at least double. More likely the need for electricity will increase by 250-300 percent based on current total energy use in the state; but let’s assume that efforts to improve energy efficiency succeed sufficiently to require just doubling our current electric power generation capacity.
With that assumption, for Michigan to become 100% solar would require 1,400 square miles of solar panels, or 700 square miles to provide just 50% of the needed electricity. This is roughly one percent of the total land area of the state, with forest taking up more than half of the land and cities, inland lakes, and other uses that are not feasible for low cost solar installation taking another ten percent of the state, the reality is that solar will take approximately 2.5 percent of the available open land in the state. Many farmers would probably welcome the income from turning some of their least productive fields into solar power “farms”
The best place for solar in the state, based on maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are along the Ohio border. The good news is much of the state’s population is in reasonable proximity of this area, and the transmission lines from Ohio transit this area. The bad news is there is not enough transmission or distribution infrastructure in this area to move the power, and it is some of the best agriculture land in the state, with fresh produce in competition with solar. Some of this area is also used by airlines for routes in and out of the state and airline pilots have complained of glare from solar panels when there are large sized arrays. These issues will need to be worked out, and the siting of solar will be based on where land and infrastructure is available, zoning restrictions, and other factors, rather than a pure technical production potential.
Solar, like wind has a major play in the sustainable future. Michigan has solar photovoltaic production facilities and there are jobs associated with them. Solar installation jobs are mostly low paid, manual labor jobs; they offer entry level positions to able bodied individuals for the period during which solar is being installed in a small region, and then they end. It is the factory jobs, the skilled electrician jobs and the distribution control and monitoring equipment operator jobs that Michigan needs to focus their future on, not the manual labor installation positions. Michigan’s universities would do well to determine how to automate in a factory as much of the manual labor as possible to take costs out and improve the overall quality of the installed solar.
When it comes to distributed solar on rooftops, ideally Michigan would create a socially just program that puts some solar on the roof of every residence. Based on existing load of an average house, 2 kilowatts of solar on each single-family house’s roof would provide the best technical answer and meet the majority of the daylight load for an average household in Michigan. This amount minimizes export back to the grid and the need to increase infrastructure size just to support solar generation. Apartments, condominiums and houses should all be included in this kind of a program, though there isn’t enough roof area on many multi-unit buildings to provide all the power they will need. The solar should be provided as part of the electric service on each dwelling unit. The regulatory mechanism remains to be decided on how to do this fairly for all residents of the state, regardless of income or ownership.
In the next part of the series the article will look at energy storage, both batteries and Michigan’s unique position in pumped storage – including new research in using mines and natural features, Michigan’s place in Electric vehicle manufacturing and research, and our built environment and needed changes. All critical components both the Michigan’s economy and to a sustainable system. I hope you will come back read it too. Thank you.