You can’t mail a battleship with a single postage stamp. There is a lot of talk about 100 percent renewable energy and future goals for a carbon-free world. While laudable, big talk doesn’t stop the battleship that is climate change. Action on a large scale is what we need.
Utilities own more than 9,000 MW of coal plants inside our state boundaries. If these plants are to be closed as the latest talk suggests, they obviously have to be replaced with some other forms of energy. Wind and solar are the best carbon-free options today, but it is getting harder to locate them within the state of Michigan.
Last year, two townships in Michigan’s thumb region decided they didn’t want any more wind turbines. Thus, a wind farm project with developers ready to build and utilities ready to purchase never got built. In 2019, wind developers are poised to lose another battle over a wind project in Baraga County. Locally, we have one windmill in our region to show for over two decades of talk about the benefits of renewable energy.
Either one of these failed wind projects would have taken Cherryland’s carbon-free portfolio from 56 percent to over 70 percent. If we had been lucky enough to work out a deal on both (which was in play at one point), our members would have benefited from 80 percent carbon-free energy for decades. Losing both is clearly a bitter pill to swallow.
So, what about solar you ask? Well, let’s take a large utility-stated goal of 6,000 MW of solar in Michigan by 2040. Today, when we use the math of completed projects, we know that it takes about five acres of land to fit 1 MW of solar. Therefore, we need to cover 30,000 acres with solar panels to reach this goal.
Some will argue that we can find 30,000 acres worth of rooftops on homes and businesses and then we won’t have to cover our beautiful land. I can’t buy that. We need to get all of this energy into the grid so the supply can find the demand. Anybody who thinks we can find 30,000 acres of rooftop on any type of building that can also be conveniently tied to the grid by 2040 is somebody who will not be around to answer for why this didn’t happen.
If we don’t find the land for large wind and solar projects that are not only practical but economically affordable, we will see more and more natural gas plants. Yes, natural gas produces less CO2 than coal but it does produce CO2. When we don’t build coal or nuclear and we can’t site wind or solar on a large scale while demand for electricity grows (don’t tell me we can conserve our way out of this problem either—we can’t), we are left with gas.
If a goal of 100 percent renewable doesn’t come with a zoning/siting plan or a “not-in-my-backyard” resolution, the battleship problem simply sails forward for the next generation to deal with while we stand on the shore with our one lonely postage stamp in the form of a single windmill or a smattering of tiny solar projects.
I don’t want to give up local control, but it could happen in our future because today’s reality shows that the biggest impediment to cleaner energy production at scales that can sink a battleship is Michigan communities and townships.