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Michigan's new "Thumb Loop" wind energy transmission line illustrates the slides-and-ladders, politicized situation of the U.S. wind energy industry.

Clean Power

New “Thumb Loop” Is A Big Deal For Wind Energy

Michigan’s new “Thumb Loop” wind energy transmission line illustrates the slides-and-ladders, politicized situation of the U.S. wind energy industry.

It sure sounds like some kind of new torture device, but “Thumb Loop” is the name of a brand new high-voltage wind energy transmission line in Michigan. The 140-mile project, which just completed the last step in a three-stage phase-in, literally makes a loop around the state’s Thumb region, tapping into wind farms along the way.

The new 345 kV, $520 million Thumb Loop transmission line pales alongside the massive CREZ wind energy project in Texas, but we’re interested because it demonstrates, in neat, compact form, some of the key factors driving wind energy in the US — and some of the obstacles along the way.

Michigan wind energy transmission

US Wind Energy: Follow The Money

On the plus side, the Thumb Loop illustrates the case that wind energy makes in terms of electricity costs.

Earlier this year, our friends over at North American Wind Power reported that the cost of wind energy in Michigan has declined by half compared to 2008, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

That brings the cost of wind energy in Michigan down to the $47–53/MWh. That’s approximately half the cost of coal in the state, mirroring a nationwide trend toward cheap wind energy in the US.

Natural gas advocates are slowly prying the gas export bottleneck apart, and if that trend continues natural gas is going join coal in the less-competitive energy category, leaving the field clear for more wind energy.

The economic benefits of wind power in Michigan are so clear that the new transmission line even made a believer out of Governor Rick Snyder. Hardly known for his liberal leanings on clean energy, Snyder had this to say in a press release issued by Thumb Loop developer ITC Transmission.:

The Thumb Loop has…allowed us to expand our agricultural processing abilities and allowed us to add low-cost renewable energy to our grid and saved Michigan ratepayers real money.

Michigan wind energyITC has big plans for the future, too. By the end of last year, the project had already roped in 900 Thumb area wind megawatts. Another 3328 megawatts will come on board by the end of this year.

ITC expects that the Thumb Loop will also provide a “backbone” for additional interconnections, specifically wind energy.

That is, of course, if Michigan policymakers cooperate.

Wind Energy Derp

Despite the growing evidence of economic benefits, the future of wind energy is rocky in Michigan.

With the help of wind energy, the state is on track to meet its renewable energy goal of 10 percent by 2015, but efforts to bump that up to 25 percent have stalled out in the state legislature.

Local concerns are also starting to monkeywrench future progress. Earlier this week Michigan Capitol Confidential reported that local voters seem to have reached their tolerance limit for new wind development in Huron County.

The county already hosts more wind turbines than elsewhere in the entire state combined, leading to a temporary moratorium on new development.

The Confidential reports that the legislature could work its way out of that jam by tweaking the state’s renewable energy portfolio to include imported wind energy. That wouldn’t assist the in-state wind industry but it would give state energy consumers more access to wind.

In any case that would be a moot point. Partly fueled by the Koch-connected organization Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition, the anti-wind lobby has been active in Michigan, so we’re not expecting more imported wind energy for the state any time soon.


Follow The Money, Again

The Koch connection leads us right back around to the money issue. While wind energy has given economies in states like Michigan and Iowa, other states — notably nearby Wisconsin — are struggling.

Perhaps coincidentally, Wisconsin is a central focus of lobbying dollars connected to the Koch brothers, aimed at pinning up fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy.

The difference for the wind industry is pretty stark. In 2012, for example, wind-rich Wisconsin added just 18 megawatts of in-state wind energy to its grid. Michigan added 138 megawatts, even with its less-than-ideal wind resources (that accounts for the concentration in Huron County).

The offshore wind industry is feeling the effects, too. US states up and down the Atlantic Coast could be powered almost entirely by wind energy, but the Koch name keeps popping up in connection with state policies hostile to offshore wind development.

Natural Gas Down, Not Out

Did we just mention that natural gas might not be able to compete with wind in the future? Don’t hold us to that yet. Part of Michigan’s coal problem is that it has no in-state coal, but it does have natural gas resources, in the form of shale gas.

So far the state has proceeded cautiously on exploiting its shale gas resources, but if the pace picks up you could see Snyder drop his interest in wind promotion like a hot potato.

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Photo Credit (cropped): Courtesy of ITC Transmission via ( Map Credit (screenshot): Courtesy of ITC Transmission.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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