DTE chooses politics over energy reliability
Michigan’s largest utility is suffering from cognitive dissonance: Its CEO warns of a premature energy transition, as company runs headlong into it
DTE Energy is accelerating its plans to close its largest coal plant and replace it with intermittent renewables. Given DTE’s stated goals of grid stability, Michigan’s largest utility seems to be suffering from cognitive dissonance.
“As we retire coal assets, the first thing that we worry about is reliability,” DTE CEO Jerry Norcia said in recent testimony to the Michigan House Energy Committee. “We’ve seen [grid destabilization] in California and other states; we’ve seen that happen in Europe in a fundamental way, and so we paid very careful attention that as we retire coal plants, we’re replacing them with assets that can be called on when you need them.”
Two weeks later, DTE agreed to rush the closure of the 3,066 megawatt Monroe coal plant and attempt to replace it with wind and solar, as well as a few hundred megawatts of battery storage. The 2035-scheduled closure of Monroe will happen in 2032 now.
DTE's actions contradict Norcia’s testimony.
Unfortunately, DTE is not alone.
Utilities across the country are hollowing out the electric grid in their rush to close reliable fossil and nuclear energy and build unreliable wind and solar. Chasing “net zero energy transition,” utilities claim they can build enough wind, solar, and energy storage to provide reliable and affordable electric service to their customers.
But reality stands in their way. The nameplate capacity of the planned wind and solar developments — DTE plans to build 2,480 MW of utility-owned wind and solar — appears similar to the capacity they will lose by closing the Monroe Plant.
However, as Norcia stated in his testimony, “sometimes you can’t count on [wind and solar] when you need it.”
Nationally, wind has an average annual capacity factor of below 40%, which means that wind turbines produce 60% below than their rated capacity. Michigan-specific capacity factors are much lower, at 29.5% in 2021. Solar’s capacity factor is typically only around 20%, and 19.8% in Michigan. But that drops to below 10% in December and January, meaning that for Michigan-based solar panels more than 90% of their rated capacity goes unused.
The wind turbines and solar panels being installed in Michigan could produce more if they were installed in another area or state, but Michigan has been ranked fourth lowest in the lower 48 for incoming solar radiation levels, and the best areas in the state for wind have already been developed. In fact, so much has been installed that many townships and counties across the state are voting to reject new renewable developments. Unreliable, unproductive, and expensive is no way to direct investment in energy infrastructure because those investments are effectively going unused.
Wind and solar don’t replace fossil and nuclear generation, they hollow out our once-reliable grid. Like a hollow log that seems sturdy on the outside, it’s likely to fail if you trust it to support you. DTE’s settlement agreement appears to have enough juice when you look at nameplate capacity, but will we be able to trust that façade when it is stressed by a Michigan winter?
Norcia warned against destabilizing the grid, as California and Europe have done. But what is DTE doing that California and Europe didn’t do?
California narrowly avoided significant blackouts last year. But the Golden State “aggressively closed natural-gas power plants in recent years, leaving the state increasingly dependent on solar farms that go dark late in the day just as electricity demand peaks,” notes a report in Bloomberg.
The state’s mismatch between peak demand and peak solar production, known as the “duck curve,” illustrates how excess solar capacity daily runs headlong into the brick wall of its own unreliability.
Western Europe has a similar story. First, European Union governments demonized fossil fuel generation and shuttered their power plants. Then, to offset unreliable wind and solar, they imported more Russian natural gas rather than producing their own. When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, these countries were left in the lurch. Many reopened their mothballed coal plants. “We will burn anything we can to keep our people warm and to make electricity,” explained Vaclav Bartuška, the Czech ambassador at large for energy security.
“European governments have wildly overestimated the ability of solar and wind to provide the energy they need and wildly underestimated the need for fossil fuels and nuclear to provide the energy they need,” writes energy expert Alex Epstein.
But why would governments mandate that citizens and taxpayers endure expensive and unreliable electric service? To stop climate change? If the United States (the world’s second-largest CO2 emitter) were to go net-zero by 2050, climate modelling indicates it would cool the planet by a trifling 0.082 degrees Celsius in 2100. But even Biden White House economists admit that 4.5° C warming by 2100 would barely impact worldwide prosperity.
With growing Chinese and Indian CO2 emissions, American emissions are dwindling in significance. If Michigan follows the same destructive path as California and Europe, we will hollow out our grid for nothing.
Joshua Antonini is a research analyst in energy and environmental policy at the Mackinac Center. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece was updated on July 17 to better describe the capacity factors of wind and solar generation technologies.
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.