Michigan’s renewable energy report card

Even by the most optimistic green-energy standards, our state doesn’t make the grade

Michigan is making big wagers while playing a very weak hand in the renewable energy game. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year signed legislation making Michigan one of the 23 states that will attempt to achieve a net-zero carbon dioxide emission goal through legislative fiat.

But Michigan’s hope to join the 100% clean energy club, with Nirvana scheduled to begin in 2040, ignores realities of the state’s natural environment. We can see how unrealistic the goal is by comparing Michigan’s carbon neutrality baseline with that of California, the state that has gone furthest in its energy transition.

The Golden State set its 100% renewable goal in 2018, with a target date of 2045. That at least gives the state 27 years to prepare, as opposed to Michigan’s far more aggressive 17-year deadline.

In 2022, according to the Energy Information Administration, 49% of California’s in-state energy generation came from renewable energy—mostly solar, wind, and geothermal. That sounds impressive, but the figure doesn’t include the rapidly growing percentage of power California imports from out of state — and it is notable that the state already has the highest average retail electricity prices in the lower 48. In Michigan, renewables — mostly wind and biomass — supplied a mere 12% of the state’s energy needs.

While California has a massive head start, the real issue going forward is the potential for growth among the five leading types of renewable energy: geothermal, solar, hydro, biomass and wind. How does Michigan measure up?

Geothermal: Grade: F

This requires a heat source near the surface to power the generators. The top geothermal energy states are all in the West: California, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii, and Oregon. Since Michigan does not currently have any volcanoes, lava, or geysers near the surface, the potential for any large-scale geothermal electricity generation by 2040 is remote.

Solar: Grade: F

While all states have an average of 12 hours of daylight (9 hours in December and 15 in June), the critical issue is the number of cloudy days per year. The states with the fewest cloudy days are, not surprisingly, in the Southwest: California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Nevada. In contrast, Michigan is the seventh-cloudiest state in the country.

“No matter where you live in Michigan,” explained the Farmer’s Almanac last September, “you’re only likely to see between 65 and 75 clear days each year.” Potential snow cover on solar panels only exacerbates this poor condition. “In 2022, utility-scale … solar installations generated less than 1% of Michigan’s … electricity.

Hydro: Grade: F

The best states for hydroelectric dams have big rivers and mountains. The top five hydro states are Washington, Oregon, New York, California and Alabama. Two-thirds of Washington’s entire electricity production comes from hydro. Michigan is a relatively flat state without any large rivers. This helps to explain why only 1% of Michigan’s electricity comes from hydro.

Biomass: Grade: D

If the goal is to have carbon-free energy, is there much difference between burning old plant material (coal) or new plant material (wood) to generate electricity? There’s an ongoing debate over whether biomass can reasonably count as carbon neutral. Despite that debate, strictly limited types of biomass, which currently provide 2% of Michigan’s electricity, were allowed as a “renewable energy resource” in Michigan’s recently passed net-zero energy bill.

Wind: Grade: D

How do you minimize the unreliability of an unreliable energy source like wind? You place your wind turbines in America’s “Wind Belt” (the Great Plains). In Iowa, 58% of electricity production comes from wind. For Kansas, the percentage is 43%, for Oklahoma 35%, for North Dakota 31%, and for Nebraska 24%. While Great Plains states are excellent locations for wind power, Michigan’s location is average at best. Only portions of the Thumb are above average.

It is very hard to get straight answers about Michigan’s wind power. The cost of wind-powered electricity is usually buried in the total cost of electricity from all sources. The state also fudges the question of how much electricity wind produces by citing “Wind Energy Installed Capacity,” which is the amount of electricity that could be generated in optimal wind conditions. Michigan does not have those conditions. The state’s Wind Energy Installed Capacity (megawatts hours) is 3,231K MWh, compared to 3,519K MWh for Nebraska. While Nebraska has 8% more capacity, it outproduces Michigan by 43% (12,477K MWh vs. 8,701K MWh) in wind-generated electricity because of its better location.

Carbon Sequestration: Grade: A

Michigan is already doing its part in the War on Carbon. Michigan has 20 million acres of forests (half of the state). Through photosynthesis, Michigan trees remove 300 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. That means Michigan’s forests removed five times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than Michigan’s electric power industry emitted into the atmosphere (58 million tons).

While Michigan has serious natural disadvantages in its carbon neutrality effort, it is more than keeping pace with other states in driving up energy costs. Politicians here mandated in 2021 that 15% of the state’s electricity must come from unreliable and expensive renewable energy.

Ramping up this mandate to 60% renewables by 2035 and 100% clean energy by 2040 will cause utility bills to skyrocket. To pursue such an unrealistic goal is a fool’s errand, and those politicians who support this are either disingenuous or naïve.

These mandates are eroding the state’s energy grid and hurting low-income consumers. If Iowa, Washington and California are blessed with abundant renewable energy, we should wish them well in their quest to reduce carbon emissions. But when a state’s renewable energy cupboard is bare, as Michigan’s is, it only makes sense to revisit the use of natural gas and nuclear power to generate electricity.

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.