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Thinking Realistically about Michigan’s Renewable Energy Future Part II

image credit: ID 150074683 © Evgeny Malkov |

In part I the overall need for energy, solar and wind’s contribution were discussed. Included in that portion was a discussion of seasonality of energy use in Michigan and some of the challenges the change in seasons cause, I would recommend you read part I before you read this.

Pumped Storage

Here is where Michigan used to really shine and could do so again. While there are small dams around the state, the real winner is in the mines, most abandoned that exist around the state. They provide a way to store massive amounts of energy with either moving masses or from pumped storage. In one limestone mine in the state, there is the ability to install more than 20 Gigawatts of generators and store more than 10 terawatt hours of electricity. This is an existing mine that could be repurposed. The nice thing is that the lake bottom in the great lake nearest the site is also limestone of the same variety, so moving water between the storage facility and the great lake would not contaminate the water. More than 100 mines exist in the state that are capable of providing multi-megawatt to gigawatt capacity for storage, at costs that are a fraction of those of batteries and allow the state to make use of facilities that are without value today, returning to the tax rolls for the state land that is considered valueless today. Other states have either water or mines, but few have both and few have as many hard rock mines that don’t pollute the water on each cycle. In several upper peninsula mines, the mine is large enough and deep enough that the whole pumped storage cycle could happen in the mine, and the water would never leave the mine – creating a closed cycle system.

Michigan Technological University has pioneered research on using mines for pumped storage and is doing an inventory of available properties that contain potentially useful facilities. Changes to state law and regulations will be needed to move this idea forward and take advantage of Michigan’s natural sustainability advantages. Building and maintaining,  not only the storage facilities, but the transmission network that would be required to support these storage facilities would provide high-skill jobs for people who are not college bound, for at least the  20 to 50 years the transition to renewable power will require.

It would give Michigan a position like what it has today in natural gas, where the storage facilities allow purchase of the natural gas when the demand and price is low and sale when the prices are higher. For decades the natural gas prices for the citizens of Michigan have been lower than the wholesale national prices because of this nearby storage capability. Mines converted to pumped-water storage could provide Michigan with a similar position when it comes to electricity.

Pumped hydro, where the structure already exists has 5 to 20 times the life and a tenth the cost of battery storage. These characteristics give Michigan a huge advantage in a renewable future and offer the manufacturing industry, energy prices that will out compete any other state. Provided the right laws and regulations are created in the state. Today, because Michigan is two peninsulas, it has the highest electric cost in the Midwest, tomorrow for the same reason, it could have the lowest. It is up to the people of Michigan to make the determination how pumped storage will work in the state.

Ludington, Michigan’s existing pumped storage facility went through years of opposition based on theories that were proven wrong when it actually stated operating. Yes, nets had to be placed in the water to keep fish out of the pumps, but they did keep the fish out, and Ludington has operated for decades with minimal environmental impact.  The pumped water “battery” at Ludington is pumping Lake Michigan water into a reservoir during periods of low electricity demand and then “withdrawing” the banked power by running the water over hydroelectric generator turbines when power demand is high.  It may be that our water is our most important method making our future energy use green, and the key to Michigan’s unique value nationally to a US transition to a sustainable energy model.


And then there’s batteries. We are already using many more batteries in transportation, as more electric and hybrid-electric vehicles are sold. Michigan now has 2 lithium ion battery plants in operation, and two more are planned by Michigan auto makers to assemble battery packs for vehicles.  These are good manufacturing jobs in the state and offer a way to provide for electric transportation, and small-scale batteries for backup power in Michigan.

Batteries will continue to be important to the electric grid and to key critical facilities, like hospitals, batteries will be more important, and more will have to be installed when fossil fuels are phased out for electricity and heating.

Batteries in vehicles may also have a critical use, that of providing services to the buildings they are parked next to, in times of storm or peak demand. Getting to the point where batteries in vehicles can both draw power from the grid and give it back will be an important step in the integration of transportation and the grid. Drivers will have to set limits on how much power the battery can offer the grid and maybe set a price they are willing to offer the power at. The drivers will have to make sure they leave enough in the car to get home and know that the grid will not draw more energy from the battery then the limit set by the driver. Again the right Michigan State laws, and regulations will help make this possible, and allow auto manufacturers to have a market to test equipment and software in.

Renewable Gas Generation

Let’s face it, Michigan has landfills and we not only put our own trash in them but allow surrounding states to send their trash to us. Much of the energy from the decay of that trash is lost today, because of the cost and complexity of collecting landfill gas to turn it into useful fuel.

Because of the research capacities of the state’s university system, Michigan could become a world leader in developing systems to produce and distribute both landfill “renewable gas” and bio-gas from farming waste. Michigan State University already has commercial biogas facilities up and running. They have research projects and the expertise to improve those systems. Having MSU and our other universities expand their expertise to commercialize landfill gas production and collection should be encouraged.  An additional benefit of these efforts will be to reduce the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere from our farms and landfills.

Trash and biogas will play a small but highly important role in our sustainable future. Some days, the weather does not provide enough renewable energy, and it may provide far more load than the system is ready for. Using the storage the state has and saving this gas through the existing pipeline system for a “rainy day” , means that there is ready access to additional storage energy in areas of the state that don’t have mines, to provide voltage support and frequency support for a generation system supplied predominantly by intermittent solar and wind power. Voltage and frequency support are critical services to keep the electrical system stable and reliable.

Vehicle Electrification

Whether it is a private car for taking the children to school and soccer practice or a heavy truck delivering bananas or a tractor in the field planting corn or harvesting navy beans, transportation will eventually go electric. It may happen using the current battery technology that Tesla and others pioneered or perhaps we’ll move to liquid batteries that can be quickly re-filled and charged at a service station. In a liquid battery, you would pump out and refill a vehicle battery with fresh, charged electrolytes, leaving the used fluids behind to be recharged at the service station. We probably will not know without a time machine how this turns out in 50-100 years, but the fact remains we need to develop infrastructure and both provide and distribute  the electricity to the cars to charge them, and a charging infrastructure throughout the state that can support convenient tourist travel. These challenges are critically  important to letting Ford, GM, FCA and other Michigan companies sell or lease their electric vehicles to the residents of the state, and to allow the automotive companies test their products in the state, keeping critical, high skill jobs in state.

Getting electric chargers installed, even before electric vehicles are a major portion of transportation will allow people to feel like they can always find a charger, just like they do today with gas stations. Truck stops and depots will also need charging infrastructure. The California Department of Weights and Measures just set standards for vehicle chargers that exceed any standard that existed before. Should Michigan follow California’s lead or should some other laws and regulations take hold. In California, it is no longer possible to sell access to the charger based on time, only based on electricity bought. Is that the right way for Michigan to work? This is a decision that needs proper public policy debate.

Traffic in consumer and manufactured goods transits Michigan primarily from east to west, and from west to east. Taking as many large trucks off the road, and putting their cargo containers on trains more quickly, would reduce goods transportation energy use by 90 percent or more. Figuring out how to do this will not be easy, but if we really want energy efficiency in the state, it must be done. Better yet, we could develop more drive up “car trains” to ferry individually owned vehicles using energy efficient trains instead of the individual vehicle’s ICE or battery.  Doing something similar for the entire US along the I-75 north-south corridor would be useful, both for heavy trucks and for vacationers going to the Upper Peninsula. Yes, this will mean fewer tourist stops in the smaller places along I-75, but it will make the route faster, and the energy use less.


Michigan has many inefficient buildings, lacking in sufficient insulation, and using appliances, lights and other equipment that could be much more energy efficient. Trading out propane, fuel oil and natural gas furnaces for high efficiency heat pumps will produce full employment among HVAC techs, excavators, and plumbers for a decade or two across the state. Figuring out how to make the heat pumps produce heat when the temperature gets below zero is a job for the researchers in our state university system. Right now, most heat pumps begin to be less efficient at freezing and stop being useful at zero F. Getting better systems is something that could go a long way to helping Michigan keep manufacturing jobs and create more jobs over a much longer time period than installing solar or wind power systems.

Every building in Michigan should be assessed and rated on its current energy efficiency. Our building code requirements for insulation, lighting, and HVAC system efficiency need to be brought up to the same standards that Canada now uses, and then be increased slowly. Requirements for overall building efficiency should also increase. Most major remodeling projects should trigger requirements for higher efficiency in order to meet the new codes. With Dow based in the state and our research universities at work, we should demand development of better insulation materials than those on the market today. Improved product specifically designed for retrofit of existing housing and commercial buildings are also needed.

For low income and people on fixed incomes the state needs to come up with a loan program that costs very little and is paid back on the sale of a home. Many low- and fixed-income people live in some of the worst insulated dwellings, with appliances that have the lowest efficiency. A serious program on energy efficiency would not leave those people behind. Again public policy debate and the right laws will move the state forward. To avoid some of the issues that Australia saw, the program needs a strong inspection regime and competitive bids. Bidders who don’t deliver the specifications, don’t get paid and don’t get to continue in the program. Those that do, should be able to get more business through the program and access to low interest loads for people who do not qualify for the low- or fixed-income program.  Rental properties, condominiums and other types of dwelling units should be included in the program.

Commercial and public buildings need to be included too, and those buildings should be subject to standards just as strict.

Part III steps inside the building to look at appliances and media devices, then looks at demand response, asking hard questions about participation. Then discusses the transition from where Michigan is to where it needs to be, the research needs, and finally investment issues. I hope you will continue reading when it is posted.

Doug Houseman's picture

Thank Doug for the Post!

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