ANN ARBOR — State policy can be a larger impediment to renewable energy than overcast skies and a lack of wind.
One statewide nonprofit hopes to address those challenges as part of a new study. The Clean Energy Coalition of Michigan recently received a $100,000 research grant from the Michigan Energy Office to study the barriers to increasing renewable energy projects in the state.
The grant is targeted specifically at highlighting inconsistent permitting and zoning policies and practices in municipalities across Michigan.
Coalition project leaders say governmental administrative inefficiencies and time delays often increase the soft costs associated with renewable energy installations and act as barriers to further development in the state.
One major roadblock is the issue of preparedness on the part of local governments, according to coalition members. Not all townships and municipalities have the tools and streamlined processes to address renewable energy projects, said Heather Seyferth, project manager at the Clean Energy Coalition.
The goal of the project is to improve basic knowledge about renewable energy installations, further push best practices and ultimately help close the cost-per-watt gap that puts municipal renewable energy projects just out of reach financially, she said.
“Things like expediting the permitting process, emphasizing common planning language and common zoning language, shortening permit review and decision times are just a few things that need to be addressed at the local level,” Seyferth said.
Using Saginaw and Midland and the nearby Thomas Township and Williams Charter Township as pilot sites for the research, project coordinators hope to eventually use the information to launch statewide education outreach and look at potential statewide laws for renewable energy sites.
Beyond local issues, industry professionals say more overarching barriers to growing Michigan’s portfolio of renewable energy projects still include high upfront capital costs, the lack of a distributed energy transmissions system and a dearth of energy storage capabilities.
Despite those issues, industry insiders say state policy can serve as a catalyst for renewable energy growth.
In its 2012 annual report, the Michigan Public Service Commission noted that the 2008 renewable portfolio standard — that mandated utilities generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015 — had already resulted in $1.79 billion of investment in the state through last year. Further, the report stated 964 megawatts of renewable energy projects had been built since the adoption of the renewable portfolio standard.
The MPSC report also found a downward trend in the weighted average cost of renewable energy contracts compared to other traditional forms of energy. New renewable energy contracts came in at an average of $82.54 per megawatt-hour, according to the report.
In contrast, the report also found that new coal-fired generation is estimated to cost $133 per megawatt-hour.
“There are definitely market issues such as high upfront costs, but a lot of them seemed to be based on perception,” said Joshua Brugeman, program director for the Clean Energy Coalition. “The goal of this program is to work alongside the research already being done to break down the market barriers.”
The new Michigan Renewable Energy Tools Program, as it’s called, piggybacks on the research the coalition conducted on advancing solar energy in the Great Lakes Bay region in the fall of 2012.
Deliverables for the new program include developing a package of municipal tools and renewable energy guidebooks as well as fact sheets that address solar installations, urban wind turbines, urban bio-energy and electric vehicle charging stations.
The backbone of the program relies on collaboration with the Great Lakes Bay Economic Development Partnership, which includes support from Saginaw Future Inc., Midland Tomorrow and Bay Future Inc. Other supporters include Dow Chemical Co. and the Detroit Joint Electrical Apprenticeship Training Center.
The Michigan Municipal League, Michigan Township Association, Michigan Association of Planning and Western Michigan University also have supporting roles in the program.
Coordinators hope to launch a follow-on multi-year outreach campaign as early as the end of 2013.
With cheap natural gas currently dominating the state’s energy discussion, program coordinators recognize that a dramatic shift toward renewables is not likely to happen overnight.
“It’s never going to be a one-for-one swap where solar or wind is going to replace natural gas or another source,” Brugeman said. “It’s all about diversifying the mix of generation. It’s a five- to ten-year program, and we’re confident we can get the cost per watt down.”