Michigan Energy Initiative Would Restrict Choice

Published April 12, 2018

A citizens’ ballot campaign in Michigan aims to force the state to get 30 percent of its electricity from select renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power by 2030.

Clean Energy, Healthy Michigan (CEHM) introduced its “30 by 30” plan in mid-February. CEHM must collect at least 252,523 valid signatures by August 12 to get on the November ballot. The ballot initiative is backed by California-based financier and activist Tom Steyer, who has made millions of dollars on coal investments since 1999.

A similar constitutional amendment backed by anti-fossil fuel activists that would have raised Michigan’s renewable power mandate to 25 percent by 2025 was rejected in a 62 percent–38 percent vote in 2012.

‘Less Reliable, More Expensive’

Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, says forcing Michiganders to get 30 percent of their energy from renewable sources would increase prices and reduce reliability.

“If we push Michigan to produce 30 percent of its electricity with less reliable, more expensive electricity sources, every Michigan resident’s pocketbook will suffer,” Hayes said. “This requirement will make it difficult to provide reliable, affordable electricity.

“Markets should make these decisions, not state legislators,” said Hayes. “The state legislature’s job should be to say, ‘We need this much electricity, and we need this level of clean air and clean water.’ How to get there should be left up to markets.”

Capacity Problems

Backers of 30 by 30 are pushing wind and solar power, says Hayes, even though steady, sufficiently high wind speeds and available sunlight are limited in Michigan.

“The capacity factor for wind, meaning the average amount of power generated divided by a facility’s rated peak power, is only about 36 percent in Michigan, and the capacity factor for solar is only 13 percent,” Hayes said. “Michigan is not a windy or sunny state.

“The state has already developed wind farms in the state’s best areas for wind resources,” said Hayes. “If you’re going to produce lots of electricity from wind power, then what you want is consistent, high wind speeds, and the only place in Michigan where that exists is the tip of the ‘Thumb’ region in Tuscola County, along the shoreline of the Great Lakes, but utilities and wind developers have already built this area out.” 

Efficiency Gap

Residents in the Thumb region have been rejecting new wind farms by votes of two to one, so if 30 by 30 becomes law, wind developers will have to build new wind farms in less-windy locations.

“The only way Michigan is going to add more wind capacity is to build in areas like the interior or middle of the state, which have much less of a wind resource,” Hayes said. “Rather than being built in locations like the tip of the Thumb, which have seven to seven-and-a-half meters per second wind speeds 100 meters off the ground, new wind farms will be constructed in areas having wind blowing at four to five meters per second.

“If you are using a less efficient resource to produce electricity, then what happens is you produce less electricity using the same equipment, so you have to construct greater numbers of turbines,” said Hayes. “So now our costs are going to go up. There’s no way you can do it more efficiently using poorer-quality wind.”

Less Wind, Higher Costs

Hayes says this is a serious problem because the most recent contract Michigan utilities signed for wind energy is already much higher-priced than contracts for wind power in more favorable locations.

“Areas with big wind resources, like the Great Plains states of Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, are signing contracts at $20 per megawatt hour,” Hayes said. “By comparison, Michigan’s last wind contract was approximately $60 per megawatt hour, three times the going rate. Building wind farms in less-efficient areas will increase prices even more.”

Instead of increasing Michigan’s renewable energy mandate, the state should pursue energy choice, Hayes says.

“We should start by removing the cap on our choice program and allow energy producers to compete in an open market,” said Hayes. “This is the best way to ensure the people of Michigan are getting clean, reliable, affordable electricity at the best prices.

“Every industry which has been thrown open to competition after having been previously regulated—for instance, airlines, cable service, telephones, etc.—has produced more-reliable service at lower prices,” Hayes said.

‘Counterproductive’ Mandates

James Taylor, president of the Spark of Freedom Foundation, says if environmental activists want to see Michigan and the United States make economic and environmental progress, they should not push for renewable power mandates.

“Even the left-of-center Brookings Institution has published a study titled ‘Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future Is Not Wind or Solar Power,'” said Taylor. “It is economically and environmentally counterproductive for government to obstruct more affordable zero- and low-emission power sources like nuclear power, hydro power, and natural gas while simultaneously demanding an economy run solely on expensive, unreliable wind and solar power.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.