Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote about the increasing stress on the grid due to increasing demand and retreating supply. Since then, there has been almost no new construction of power plants.
During the heat of July and August 2020, we had another three maximum generation events on the regional grid. There was a time when three events in 10 years was rare. These “max gen” events call upon every available generator to put electricity into the grid over a 15-state region. These are generators of every fuel type, even antiquated but functional diesel peaking units.
This summer, for the first time in its history, Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative generated more electricity than was used by the five distribution cooperatives it serves. Natural gas peaking designed to meet occasional high demand periods ran around the clock in July and August to support the regional grid that desperately needed resources to meet consumer needs.
Wolverine has 200 MW of wind in its portfolio. In July 2020, when the power was needed the most, there was only enough wind for about 2 MW of energy. I don’t report this to disparage wind turbines. I report this to point out what is a common occurrence every July—there is very little wind. Fossil fuel generation like coal and natural gas are needed to keep the lights on. It is simply a fact.
Well then, what about solar? Isn’t the sun always shining in July and August? The sun certainly does shine for a good part of the day, but demand is still high after sunset. Once again, the traditional generation is needed to generate electricity when solar can’t deliver. Battery technology is coming along but far from utility-scale.
So, what is going to happen? There are a number of simple options. The region needs to build more generation of all types. Large wind developers have been chased out of Michigan. This needs to stop, as does opposition to utility-scale solar. Clean energy advocates need to step up, find locations that work, and put in the effort necessary to bring large projects to fruition.
Other utilities are planning for more natural gas generation. I expect this construction to ramp up over the next couple of years. Permitting for natural gas is a path of least resistance, and natural gas generators take up less real estate (the biggest complaint of large-scale wind and solar). In no scenario do I see our region moving away from a reliance on natural gas.
What about the dirty old coal plants that are shutting down? Well, if we don’t build solar, wind and natural gas generation in large amounts and the grid needs power, we will see these old plants continue to operate. Yes, I can hear the screaming now. It will come from the same people who did nothing as anti-wind groups chased the large developers from Michigan.
After energy conservation, our last resort will be to simply turn the lights out during periods of high demand. We call these “rolling blackouts.” California is seeing them in 2020. It frustrates me, but I think Michigan could see them within the next five years. Yes, I can’t believe I just typed that. It makes me sad.
The clock is ticking, and it’s ticking to black.