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Why Natural Gas Will Replace Coal As Michigan’s Top Energy Source

May 18, 2015

(ZEELAND) — If that roar coming from the inside of Consumers Energy’s Zeeland Generating Plant sounds a little like the muffled roar of a 747 at take off, it’s because the technology of the jet airplane and a natural gas-fired power plant aren’t terribly different.

Air gets sucked into a compression chamber. It ignites the natural gas or jet fuel. Explosions spin the turbine. The jet moves or electricity is generated. 

Ever since Consumers bought this plant in 2007 from private investors — who were running it only when demand was so high they could make big bucks off it — it’s become a key piece of the energy grid that powers Michigan. 

There’s enough energy kicking out of this 14-year-old plant to light up Grand Rapids and the surrounding area, boasts Zeeland Power plant manager Gregg BAUSTIAN, and it’s one of six plants statewide that incumbent utilities have gobbled up from private ventures who couldn’t make the ventures work. 

DTE Energy and Consumers Energy officials walked the capital press corps through the Zeeland Generating Plant this morning to show how plants like this one may become more common if natural gas prices stay low. 

That’s the key word: “If,” said Matthew PAUL, the executive director of generation optimization & corporate fuel supply. 

Now that gas companies have found a way to turn a drill 90 degrees deep under the earth and branch out a well horizontally, natural gas prices have lowered to a point where Paul said he wouldn’t be surprised if natural gas surpasses coal as the state’s largest source of electricity. 

“Now, we have an abundant, low cost, clean energy that this country is going to have for a number of decades,” said Brandon HOFMEISTER, Consumers’ executive director of policy research, a former energy advisor to former Gov. Jennifer GRANHOLM. “It’s a good choice to providing reliable power for Michigan.” 

Nine DTE and Consumers coal-fired plants are being shut down. Utility officials have made the decision that renovating the plants to meet new federal clean air rules would be too expensive. 

So unless a natural disaster or an unforeseen fracking accident spikes natural gas prices to a point where it’s too expensive, utilities will keep using it. For one thing, it doesn’t blast the number of toxins coal plants emit. So, Michigan will go from 60 percent of its power coming from coal to the 30 percent range, with natural gas hitting the 40-percent range, Paul estimates. 

Environmentalists have repeatedly raised concerns with this new “fracking” technique soiling local drinking water supplies, but the Department of Environmental Quality has yet to report an accident. 

“The companies that are doing this, they’re being as careful as they can be because this is their lifeblood,” Baustian said. “It’s what they’re in business for, so they’re not going to go out and try to make a mess.” 

Comparatively, piping natural gas to a plant like Zeeland is cheaper than peppering Michigan’s landscape with the hundreds of wind turbines it would take to kick out the same 900 megawatts the Zeeland plant generates. 

Also, Zeeland has two different types of natural gas plants — one that can go from sitting still to blasting out 360 megawatts in 20 minutes — and a pair of others that use the exhaust from the natural gas burning process to create steam to spin more turbines and produce even more electricity. 

That’s the type of on-demand energy wind and solar currently can’t compete with. 

Renewable energy is good, utility officials agree. Customers want more energy coming from wind turbines, the sun or rotting plants or animal manure (bio-mass) and are willing to pay a little extra for it. 

But Hofmeister said he believes the 20 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS) legislative Democrats want to see by 2022 is “aggressive.” He wasn’t even asked about the 30-percent-by-2030 standard the Union of Concerned Scientists want to see (See “Environmental Scientists Push For 30% RPS For Michigan,” 5/7/15).  

When one turbine may to generate a megawatt or two when the wind blows, it’s not cost-effective to immediately hook even a plurality of state’s energy supply on wind energy, they said. 

Nuclear energy looks to stay around 20 percent of Michigan energy generation, but it probably won’t go larger than that any time soon. If it takes less than a $1 billion and about 18 months to throw up a natural gas-fired plant, it takes $9 billion and several years to build a nuclear plant . . . and that’s with the paperwork for something like “Fermi 3” in southeast Michigan already approved. 

That said, Baustian said American society is “on the cusp” of homeowners installing affordable solar shingles on their roofs that will gin up electricity that can be stored in a personal battery inside a home. He noted Elon MUSK is staking the future of his company on it. 

Still, there will be days the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. 

“We’re still going to need the iron in the ground, the generating plants, and it all has to be balanced with the rest of the portfolio mixes,” he said. 

Paul and Hofmeister talk more about natural gas and the utilities’ energy vision during this week’s MIRS Monday podcast.

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