News Story

Commentary: Natural Gas Plants Better Than Wind Turbines

Natural gas is cheaper with few emissions — why is the state pushing wind?

By Kevon Martis

Climate change activist James Hansen has said, "Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy." But this has not prevented the Michigan Environmental Council and its affiliates from making a full-throated appeal for far higher renewable energy mandates at Gov. Rick Snyder’s statewide series of energy roundtable meetings.

The Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and its allies have chosen one unifying theme for these events: coal-fired electrical generation kills people and renewable energy (wind) is the cure.

To that end, the MEC commissioned a report called: "Public Health Impacts of Old Coal-Fired Power Plants in Michigan." Analyzing the health care impacts of fine particulate emissions from Michigan's nine oldest coal fired generation plants, MEC concludes:  "… the Michigan-specific health-related damages associated with [fine particulate] emissions from the nine coal-fired facilities [are] $1.5 billion annually…" and "…[cause] 180 premature [coal emissions] deaths per year in Michigan."

Such large numbers certainly deserve scrutiny. For the sake of argument let us assume that fine particulate emissions truly do have such an outsized financial and human impact. If so, what is the cheapest and most effective means to protect our citizens?

The MEC has consistently promoted renewable energy as the best cure for these coal emissions. But is this just faith in James Hansen’s "Tooth Fairy"?

By the end of 2013, roughly $2.5 billion will have been spent in Michigan on industrial wind turbines, including the $500 million "Thumb" transmission loop. These 900 megawatts (MW) of wind turbines will combine to create a wind plant that will have an annual capacity of just one fourth that size, perhaps 225MW. This is because wind is a fuel that has a mind of its own, often showing up at the wrong time and wrong quantity — and always the wrong quality — when it is there at all.

The nine Michigan coal plants in MEC's study have an effective capacity of approximately 4,200MW. Charitably assuming that 225MW of wind generation replaces the same quantity of coal generation, those $2.5 billion in wind turbines plus transmission will have eliminated only 5 percent of the fine particulate emissions from coal.

This means $2.5 billion of wind turbines and transmission lines will at best save only $75 million per year in coal emissions related health costs, or nine lives annually.

What the MEC wishes for us to ignore is that there is a far more efficient way to combat those emissions: natural gas-fired combined cycle gas turbine plants (gas plants), which emit almost no particulates or mercury.

Modern gas plants are among the lowest cost ways to generate electricity. CMS Energy is currently constructing a new 750MW gas plant at a cost of $1 million per megawatt. By way of comparison, CMS Lakewinds wind farm near Ludington cost $2.5 million per megawatt, or two-and-a-half times the price of gas plants.

Not only are gas plants cheap to build, they produce our cheapest electricity. The federal Energy Information Administration projects that by 2017 the cost of energy from gas plants will be only two-thirds the cost of wind energy.

This is a serious blow to MEC's renewable energy "Easter Bunny."

By the end of 2013, and despite having spent $2.5 billion, Michigan's nine oldest coal plants will continue to operate while having their emissions trimmed by no more 5 percent. But had we chosen to build gas plants instead of wind plants, that same $2.5 billion could build 2,500MW of gas generating capacity instead of only 225MW. This is enough to permanently close half of the nine "dirty coal" plants in question.

Doing so would, according to MEC’s own data, slash Michigan's health care costs from coal by $750 million annually. It would also save 90 lives per year at a cost of $27 million per life.

But under MEC's renewable energy plan, 81 of those 90 lives would be sacrificed. And the nine people saved would cost a staggering $277 million per life. That is 10 times the price per life.

Further, had we constructed 5,000MW of gas plants instead of wind turbines, we would close all nine coal plants and thereby lock in annual health care savings of $1.5 billion dollars per year while simultaneously extending the lives of 180 people each year in Michigan. Just those health care cost savings alone would pay for the construction costs of those new gas plants in only 3.3 years.

While our cost-benefit analysis is simplified to be sure, we are still forced to face some sobering conclusions.

Because wind generation cannot replace coal plants but gas plants can, we are currently wasting $1.42 billion per year in health care costs that could have been eliminated without renewable energy mandates.

By following the MEC’s lead and mandating wind energy instead of encouraging the construction of natural gas plants, we continue to needlessly kill nearly 180 people per year.

In truth, no one knows the true health care costs of coal emissions. But we know that whatever that true cost is, wind energy is the most expensive and least effective means of eliminating those costs and certainly should not be mandated by state policy.

It is high time the MEC and its affiliates like the Michigan Land Use Institute, League of Conservation Voters, Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club abandon childlike faith in fairy tales and start endorsing a science-based "no regrets" energy policy for grownups.

Kevon Martis is the senior policy analyst for the Interstate Informed Citizen’s Coalition Inc., a bipartisan grassroots renewable energy watchdog group based in Blissfield. The IICC is not sponsored by any industry or advocacy group.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.