The global energy transition that is underway to combat the worst effects of climate change can be encapsulated along roughly 125 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
From Ludington to Van Buren County, a sweeping and relatively fast transition to cleaner energy is taking place, including retiring coal-fired power plants, attempts to keep open carbon-free nuclear power, building energy storage capacity and maintaining natural gas to ensure grid reliability through it all.
The West Michigan and broader energy transition includes ongoing obstacles and complexities, such as the need to control costs and an even greater responsibility to ensure power grid reliability. But utilities, energy regulators, environmental advocates and average power consumers are getting a front-row seat to the climate fight in West Michigan.
“Just the energy landscape in West Michigan and the Lower Peninsula is going to look drastically different in the next few years here,” said Joshua Paciorek, spokesperson for Jackson-based utility Consumers Energy, which is playing a key role in the power generation mix. “There’s a lot of changes happening.”
Following Consumers’ closure of the B.C. Cobb coal plant in Muskegon in 2016, as well as recent municipally owned coal plant closures in Holland and Grand Haven, the utility reached a tentative agreement last month to permanently close the J.H. Campbell coal plant in Port Sheldon in 2025. The closure would be part of Consumers’ final send-off to the already declining coal industry.
Consumers expects the Michigan Public Service Commission to issue a final decision by the end of the year on closing the Campbell plant, Paciorek said.
“If given approval … Consumers Energy will be one of the first utilities in the nation to go coal-free,” Paciorek said.
The tentative agreement announced last month would settle a yearslong dispute between Consumers and environmental advocates, who have maintained calls to close Campbell long before the utility initially planned. As recently as 2018, Consumers planned to keep at least part of the Campbell plant open until 2040.
Shuttering coal plants also is the first step to taking meaningful action to fight climate change, at least in the electricity generation sector.
“Any rational plan to address climate change winds up with a focus on switching power generation from coal, which is the worst of the fuels, to clean energy resources as soon as is practical,” said Douglas Jester, managing director of energy consulting firm 5 Lakes Energy LLC, who regularly intervenes as an expert in energy cases before the Public Service Commission.
Gas and clean energy
Beyond coal, Consumers has proposed a massive, 8,000 megawatt (MW) buildout of solar energy by 2040 while also ramping up programs to limit power demand through energy efficiency and demand response programs.
The utility also is seeking regulatory approval to buy an existing natural gas power plant in Covert Township for $815 million. While some environmental advocates have criticized the ongoing use of natural gas and call for a quick buildout of renewable energy and storage, Consumers says the generation is needed to maintain grid reliability. Purchasing the gas plant also was part of the settlement agreement announced on April 20, which included major environmental groups in the state.
Jester underscored the fact that the Covert gas plant is already in operation as opposed to a new build.
“I would be opposed to building new gas plants,” Jester said. “Consumers’ proposal to acquire an existing gas plant is much less harmful in that they’re transferring the ownership and the use of the plant for reliability. It’s no worse from an emissions perspective than if they had not bought an existing plant.”
In the context of needing to retire all fossil fuel plants by 2050 to avoid the worst climate change effects, Jester said “it wasn’t practical to build enough renewables and (battery) storage fast enough to retire Campbell in 2025 without the purchase of Covert or a similar gas plant. I do want to be sure, though, that we continue to strive to build out renewables, storage and do energy efficiency so the time can come to retire gas plants.”
Storage and nuclear
With utilities’ and policymakers’ growing embrace of climate change action, two more lakeshore energy facilities could play vital roles in the coming decades.
The nearly 2,000 MW Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, which was built in 1973 in Mason County and is now jointly owned by Consumers and DTE Energy, is one of the largest pumped storage plants in the world and can supply power to 1.4 million people. A reservoir above the shoreline holds 27 billion gallons of water and has a surface area of more than a square mile. During periods of high power demand, the water is released downhill through turbines and other components that produce electricity.
The New Yorker recently called pumped storage — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s energy storage capacity — a “remarkable but unsung technology,” even though new construction in the U.S. has long been challenged because of permitting and geographical barriers.
That’s why Ludington can be an ace in the hole for Michigan’s energy future. Consumers and DTE also are nearing the completion of a $500 million upgrade at the facility that will add 300 MW of capacity and operate more efficiently.
“Ludington is such a special place to Consumers Energy for delivering reliable, clean, affordable electricity,” Paciorek said. “How it fits into our portfolio is huge.”
Jester noted that the Ludington upgrades will not only increase its capacity and ability to smooth out swings from low to high power demand, but also new efficient turbines will mean less power lost in the process of pumping water uphill and releasing it downhill.
“Ludington is the equivalent of a big battery and can meet a lot of our storage needs for the next decade,” Jester said. “The thing Ludington doesn’t provide that batteries will is agility — it’s a big mechanical system, so it can’t turn on and off instantaneously, whereas batteries can do that.”
Earlier this year, the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council — at the request of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy — released an energy storage roadmap outlining the state’s storage needs over the coming decades. These technologies address short-term duration that can accompany intermittent wind and solar projects. The roadmap outlines strategies for state policymakers to hit a 4,000 MW storage capacity target by 2040.
As well, Consumers Energy has proposed increasing its battery storage capacity to 75 MW by 2027 and 550 MW by 2040.
“Folks are seeing (battery storage) as an opportunity,” said Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council President Laura Sherman. The MEIBC also was a party to last month’s proposed settlement with Consumers.
“We worked really hard to make sure the utility was considering storage and doing some early procurements of storage,” Sherman said.
Finally, and perhaps the most hotly contested and complex debate over clean energy, is the path forward for nuclear plants that have been in operation for decades. West Michigan landed on the national stage last month as having one of just a few nuclear plants in the country that are scheduled to close but could be saved by last-minute federal subsidies.
The Palisades Power Plant, also in Covert Township, remains at risk of closing by the end of this month unless a buyer emerges to purchase it from Entergy Corp. While existing nuclear plants — and new plants even more so — are expensive to operate compared to renewables and natural gas, they can be a valuable carbon-free tool even though the waste generated can pose long-term environmental risk.
“I’m willing to try to keep existing nuclear plants going for a while until we can transition fossil fuel generation to renewables, provided that we’re rigorous about maintenance, operations and safety,” Jester said.