What do I see in the next five to 10 years for the energy industry? Stress. In particular, I see stress on the regional grid that we all rely on for power. This grid is called the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).
MISO is a not-for-profit, member-based organization established to ensure reliable, least-cost delivery of electricity across all or parts of 15 American states (including Michigan) and one Canadian province. In partnership with utility stakeholders, MISO manages approximately 65,000 miles of high-voltage transmission and 200,000 megawatts of power-generating resources across its footprint.
A maximum generation or “max-gen” event on the MISO grid means that the regional operator is calling on every available generator, regardless of fuel type, to run (even antiquated but functioning diesel peaking units). They also call on utilities to cancel or delay maintenance that would take a generator offline during a max-gen event. In short, it is all-hands-on-deck to meet the energy demands of the day.
In the 10 years prior to the spring of 2016, MISO declared six max-gen events. Since that time, there have been 15 max-gen events. What does this mean? It means we are losing generation faster than we are building it. While we have celebrated coal plant closures and clamored for the end of nuclear energy, we have not been building any alternatives on a scale to keep up.
You don’t have to look any farther than the state of Michigan to realize that the numbers will eventually catch up to us. Wind farms are getting killed by townships. Planning commissions are delaying large-scale solar installations. Energy conservation efforts will continue and maybe even increase, but they will not replace the 6,000 megawatts of Michigan coal plants slated to close in the next five years.
What is the solution? It’s building large-scale installations of wind, solar and natural gas. Coal is too dirty. People are too frightened of nuclear. Hydro is simply impossible to construct due to environmental complaints. Opposition to large-scale wind and solar leaves us with one sure thing in the next 10 years: gas. You will see lots and lots of gas turbines installed across Michigan and the MISO grid.
Aren’t large utilities dedicated to taking us to a wonderful renewable future? All those laudable goals are in the year 2040 and beyond. I’m focused on 2024 and 2029. Feel-good rhetoric will not solve our near-term simple math.
Shouldn’t the parades, rallies and carbon-tax initiatives save the world? We have one almost every week, but none of them address the simple math problem. Instead of railing about the woes of the planet, the time spent on these events should be put towards solving planning, zoning and siting roadblocks.
Please don’t write to me about belittling the efforts of climate advocates. Instead, write to me with legal and legislative solutions that clear the path for the actual installation of the needed clean or cleaner energy projects. If we can all agree on the root problem, why are we having so much trouble working on real-life solutions?
Don’t lose sleep over the seeming doom and gloom of this column. We have an easy solution, and I expect MISO to take it when the day comes. What is it? Simple math. We will run old coal and nuclear plants longer. To meet the demands of the next max-gen event, the stalwarts of today’s energy fleet will continue to operate. If we don’t build new (and we aren’t), the old will have to continue production. That’s the new max-gen math.