News Story

Coal And Nuclear Out At Consumers, Wind And Solar In

Intermittent sources make electric outages more likely? ‘Get used to it’

The Michigan Public Service Commission recently approved Consumers Energy’s plan to dismantle most of its conventional-fuel generating capacity. The company says it will replace that capacity with wind turbines and solar arrays. It also says these other sources can produce 56 percent of the electricity it will need to generate in 2040.

The electric and gas utility described this switch from coal and nuclear power in what state regulators and the company call an “integrated resource plan.” Regulators from the Michigan Public Service Commission say the 20-year program is “the first strategic, forward-looking” plan they have approved under a 2016 law. The law rewrote much of the previous state regulatory regime, which governs the electric utilities that operate as regional monopolies.

The company says it can replace the lost capacity by installing enough industrial wind turbines to generate 550 megawatts of electricity and enough photovoltaic solar collectors to produce 6,000 megawatts. It also plans on having enough industrial-strength batteries to store 300-400 megawatts of installed capacity. By comparison, wind and solar provided just 5% of the electricity used by Michigan customers in 2017. Coal was the largest source of electricity, at 37%, while nuclear provided 28%, and another 23% came from natural gas.

Consumers Energy provides electricity to 1.8 million customers in 54 of the 68 counties in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. It serves an area that spans 13,000 square miles and includes 215 cities and villages. In its new plan, Consumers says it has committed to shutting down plants that use nuclear power or coal to generate electricity. Also, it will discontinue half its natural gas-fired generation capacity.

According to a 2017 report that assembled various estimates of the amount of land needed to generate electricity, it takes about 43.50 acres of solar collectors to generate 1 megawatt. This means that to generate 6,000 megawatts, Consumers would have to cover approximately 274,050 acres with solar collectors. That’s roughly three times the size of Detroit.

It takes about 70.64 acres to produce one megawatt of wind. This means it would take 38,500 acres of wind turbines to produce the company’s goal of 550 megawatts. That’s about half the size of Detroit.

Thus, it would take 3.5 Detroits filled with solar panels and wind turbines to fulfill the plan laid out by the utility. Consumers sells over one-third of the electricity used in Michigan, so if other utilities followed its lead, even more land would be needed to supply the state’s power needs.

Consumers Energy will also depend on “demand response” strategies that offer customers incentives for reducing their electricity use during hot weather. Many of the company’s natural gas customers in Michigan experienced a form of this in late January. That’s when a fire at a station used to pump gas threatened to disrupt service to thousands of households. The threat was made worse by coming during a severe cold snap, the polar vortex. To avert a potential disaster, Consumers sent text messages to its customers, asking them to reduce their energy consumption.

“Get used to it,” said Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “When we design the system to primarily use renewable energy, which is by its very nature less reliable — the sun doesn’t shine 24/7 and the wind doesn’t blow 24/7 — we are committing ourselves to depending on the weather for energy. When we have extreme weather, they can’t keep up with it.”

Consumers Energy estimates that its plans to change how it generates power will reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent from the utility's 2005 levels. The company said it is in “a time of unprecedented change in the energy industry,” adding that it is “uniquely positioned to act as a driving force for good.”

But being a “driving force for good” is not the mission of a company whose sole purpose is to provide affordable, reliable electricity for Michigan businesses and families, said Hayes. He described a recent public event he attended. A young woman from Detroit talked about how she was helping her neighbors by forming a group to provide food to people who were in need during a weeklong power outage that resulted from summer storms. Without electricity to run refrigerators, neither residents nor nearby grocery stores could store perishable foods.

Hayes added, “My comment to the public service commission member who was sitting there listening to her story was, ‘We just heard somebody say that they have expensive, unreliable electricity service. Our plan is to close the already existing, fully paid for generation facilities that we already have and to build more expensive, less reliable energy sources?’”

“Affordable, reliable energy is at the base of everything we do in society,” Hayes concluded. “In the sense that we limit access to this, we harm the entire population.”