News Story

Will Your Furnace Turn On When Utilities Abandon Gas And Coal?

Polar vortex exposes risk with all-renewables approach to energy

As environmental groups push for greatly reducing the use of conventional fuel sources in favor of renewable ones, the recent polar vortex that hit the Midwest highlighted the dangers of doing without coal and natural gas.

During the worst of the extreme cold, Consumers Energy threatened to turn off customers’ natural gas if they did not respond to its plea to turn down thermostats to 65 degrees. The situation arose after a fire developed at a compressor facility that company uses for natural gas. There were no electric power outages reported in Michigan.

The temperature reached 15 degrees below zero in Battle Creek on Jan. 30, according to the National Weather Service, and across the U.S., there were a reported 21 deaths believed to have been due to the extreme cold.

The dire conditions highlight an often-made criticism of wind and solar energy in that they do not reliably produce energy when it is needed.

At 12:05 p.m., Jan. 30, wind comprised just 4.45 percent of the fuel used to generate electricity in a 15-state region that includes Michigan and one Canadian province, according to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. Coal, which Michigan’s largest utilities have pledged to stop using over time, provided almost half of the fuel used to produce electricity (48.36 percent) during the record cold blast. Solar energy’s contribution didn’t even register within its own category and so was included among “other sources” (1.83 percent).

The Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club and the Michigan Environmental Council have lobbied governments and pressured utilities to go along with 100 renewable electric generation schemes – which means shunning coal and natural gas.

Neither organization returned emails seeking comment about how relying entirely on renewable energy sources would hold up under peak electricity demand during life-threatening cold snaps, such as the one the state just experienced.

Bloomberg News reported that the city of Chicago had to resort to starting up older coal and natural gas plants to meet demand for electricity during the record-setting cold weather. Ironically, wind power wasn't able to contribute to the Windy City’s needs, as wind power generation plummeted.

“It’s just too cold for a lot of wind farms,” Adam Jordan, director of power analytics at Genscape Inc., told Bloomberg News. “They can get damaged in weather like this.”

Consumers Energy said it wasn’t concerned.

“Our Clean Energy Plan calls for over 40 percent of the electricity we provide to come from renewable sources by 2040,” said Consumers Energy spokesman Brian Wheeler in an email. “That plan is currently being reviewed by the Michigan Public Service Commission. We’re confident that we can meet our customers’ needs as we make the transition from coal and toward more renewable energy.”

Both Consumers Energy and DTE have pledged to be coal-free by 2040.

“Renewables cannot be relied on to act in a peaking capacity because ... utilities cannot ever guarantee that there will be a wind to spin their turbines, or a sunbeam to shine on their solar arrays,” said Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Peaking capacity must be completely reliable, there and ready to go, exactly when it is needed and in just the amount needed. By their very nature, you can’t ever rely on wind or solar to fill that need.”