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Published on December 19th, 2013 | by Guest Contributor


Michigan Utility Tries To Hide Coal Power Plant Behind Wind Farm

Originally published on ThinkProgress.
By Emily Atkin.

hide & seek

It may have come as a surprise this morning when conservative news aggregation website the Drudge Report tweeted that new greenhouse gas emissions regulations recently set by the Environmental Protection Agency have effectively forced a power cooperative to abandon its plans to build a clean energy project in Rogers City, Michigan.

Indeed, the Michigan-based Wolverine Power Cooperative on Tuesday announced that, after nearly 8 years and $25 million spent, the company will walk away from its proposed Wolverine Clean Energy Venture. Though the project has faced a number of regulatory hurdlesenvironmental challenges, and economic skepticism over the years, Wolverine CEO Eric Baker said that new greenhouse gas rules from the EPA ultimately “render the project impossible to build.”

The main rules Baker is speaking of are updated draft regulations setting a limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that new power plants can emit, which EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has called the “first uniform national limits on carbon pollution for new plants.”

The twist, however, is that the company’s “Clean Energy Venture” was in actuality two coal-fired base load power plants that would have altogether had capacity of 600 megawatts, and no proposed method of capturing or storing the carbon. With no method of storing these emissions, it would certainly make it hard for the company to build a new coal-fired plant. Under the proposed rules, coal plants either have to emit only 1,100 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour over one year, or the plant can take 7 years to get average emissions down to 1,050 pounds per megawatt hour.

The reason that Wolverine was able to deem the project “clean” was likely the fact that a 35-turbines wind turbine farm was also lumped in with the coal plants. That part of the proposal, however, was “seldom talked about” and lacking in essential data.

And even with the wind farm, according to Wolverine’s air permits, the project in its entirety would have added 995 tons of particulate pollution, 1,344 tons of SO2 pollution, and 2,647 tons of NOx pollution annually.

Wolverine had also proposed releasing 46.8 pounds of mercury pollution, 700 pounds of lead, and more than 6 million tons of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), which opposed the project.

“The wind farm originally may have been an attempt to make this overall project look cleaner than it was,” Andrew Armstrong, an attorney at the ELPC, told ThinkProgress on Wednesday. “But it’s possible that, even though the coal plant is dead, the wind farm may proceed.”

Now that Wolverine’s project is dead, Armstrong said, Michigan-based company Swan Bay Wind LLC may be able to move forward with its plans to build a 42-turbine, 140 megawatt wind farm on that same land. If approved, Swan Bay told The Alpena News that it would need “a considerable amount of temporary workers” to build it, and six permanent workers for the 25-year lifespan of the turbines — not as many as the 100 permanent jobs the coal plant would have created, but still a boost for the area’s economy.

But still, the Michigan Public Service Commission in 2010 expressed doubt that the new coal plants proposed by Wolverine would be needed — even going so far as to say the plants would result in an estimated rate increase of $76.95 per month for the average residential customer.

Commercial wind energy production, on the other hand, has grown in the last decade, with Michigan Public Services Commission data updated this month showing total operational wind capacity at 1,161 megawatts and 676 turbines. Though Rogers City isn’t located in one of the Primary Wind Energy Zones where there are a lot of wind turbines, it is right on the coast of Lake Huron, which Wolverine itself had called “one of the best wind sites in Michigan.”

“I think Wolverine is doing the right thing by its customers by cancelling the coal project, ” Armstrong said. “Its kind of funny because this totally encapsulates what’s going on now. You cannot build a new coal plant. But wind is economically viable.”

Image Credit: hide & seek via Shutterstock

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  • Adam Devereaux

    Relevant to the discussion is that Michigan already has a 2GW pumped hydro project. Situated near a 100MW wind farm on the shore of lake michigan:

    Michigan also had a huge potential for wind energy off shore in the great lakes. Some experts estimate the Great Lakes have over 700 gigawatts of potential wind power. Though with more advanced off shore wind turbine technology coming out of Europe those estimates are likely low. DOE rates the Great Lakes as having as high of or higher potential then the great plains regions.

    What is interesting is the pumped Hydro plant was originally created to buffer the output of nearby nuclear plants. It also created on a sand dune and was reinforced with clay and asphalt. Funny how impossible it is to create storage now to work with renewable energy but it was possible a few decades ago with nuclear?

    I believe past projects like this puts to lie the claim that storage is impossible with RE but was possible with Nuclear and Fossil fuels. It’s more true that the business model behind RE and distributed generation threatens the traditional profit model of utilities.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Good points, Adam.

      Supporters of coal and nuclear harp on about renewables needing storage but conveniently forget about the 21 GW of pump-up and CAES we built to move thermal production around to meed demand.

      They never acknowledge the cost of storage when they make their financial claims about thermal plants. Storage for thermal is off the books as far as they are concerned. Storage for renewables must be shouted from the highest towers.

      And Great Lakes wind? It’s Outstanding!

      • Zachary Shahan

        So many double standards like this…

  • johnBas5

    Add some hydrogen energy storage to catch the intermittency and this could become a successful wind farm:

    If the economics work out of course.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Hydrogen energy storage doesn’t seem to work. Based on the financials.
      Too much energy lost in cracking water and compressing the H2.

      You end up with less than 50% of the energy you start out with. Good storage needs to be 70% and higher. It’s a combination of efficiency and system cost.

      • johnBas5

        There is this technology that only requires compressing the H2 to around the pressure of a tire while having good storage characteristics.
        Based on discoveries from signachem:
        The storage medium is Si with Na lattice that is made from sand and salt. (I’m not a native english speaker so my explanation may have used the wrong words.)

        The good storage needs 70% and higher seems a bit arbitrary.
        It just needs to be good enough to cover costs.

        • Bob_Wallace

          The 70% is pretty objective. It’s the low end efficiency for pump-up hydro which, to date, is the cheapest way to store.

          Lower than 70% would have to come with a very small price tag in order to be competitive.

          • johnBas5

            Hydro has dependencies.
            You can’t just build it anywhere.
            It’s only very cheap where the situation is more or less ideal to build one.

          • Bob_Wallace

            You can install it anywhere you can build one reservoir higher than another.
            You can convert some of our existing 80,000 dams. 77,500 of which are not used for electricity generation.

            You can build closed-loop hydro on top of a high place located close to a low place if you’ve got enough water to fill the system one time and then replace the annual evaporation. That can be a high spot close to a low spot (Bison Peak), abandoned mines (Germany), open pit mines (Canada), gravel pits (UK), or in the ocean (Belgium).

            One company has even purposed using a tunneling machine to create a lower reservoir close to a river.

          • johnBas5

            Having to dig and stuff does increase costs though.

            I don’t know how much because that could depend on the terrain type and geological features.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Sure, but cost is relative. Pump-up is currently the cheapest large scale storage option.

            The Swiss calculate they can build pump-up dams if there’s a 5c/kWh price spread between peak and off-peak prices. Converting an existing dam should be cheaper. Using a mine, rock pit, other existing hole in the ground would mean bulldozing out one more hole and boring a small diameter tunnel between them.

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