After a nearly decade of watching Michigan’s economic woes worsen, state legislators are looking to use environmental innovation as a way to give the state’s economy a shot in the arm.
As a result of the failing auto industry, the state of Michigan has lost 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs since 2001. To make up for that loss, state legislators have repeatedly called for legislation that would create more jobs in renewable bio-energy fuels, solar and wind energy.
University experts agree wind energy is the most viable renewable energy option for Michigan.
The state Senate passed bills last week calling for state government buildings to obtain 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010.
Republican senators, who make up the majority of the Senate, were concerned about the high cost of renewable energy, and didn’t impose the requirements on other buildings.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan Plan mandates that 10 percent of the entire state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2015.
The Michigan Plan is structured around specific alternative energy goals for the buildings, known as renewable portfolio standards. Granholm pressured the state Legislature to pass the bills earlier this month, but the state House of Representatives postponed the decision until after its spring recess that began March 20.
Wind energy, along with bio-energy fuels, solar energy and energy efficiency, is one of four components included in the plan.
Uneven heating of the atmosphere causes wind, which can be harvested for energy using wind turbines – giant fan-like contraptions that take energy from the motion of the wind, turning it into power. The energy generated by the turbines, which is measured on a scale of one to seven by the Department of Energy, can then be used for electricity.
The state of Michigan has a wind potential rating of two on land. Near the coasts, though, the rating goes up to three near the coastline and up to five farther into the Great Lakes.
Len Singer, a spokesman for Detroit Edison Energy, said DTE’s only reservation about renewable energy is the high cost. He said those higher costs would end up being passed along to customers if DTE used renewable energy.
“From an economic development standpoint, we want to be sure we’re keeping costs as low as possible for businesses and residential customers,” Singer said.
He said he thinks Granholm’s plan is attainable, though.
Richard Robben, director of the University’s plant operations, said though generating wind energy costs twice as much as purchasing the power from a coal plant, wind energy would be Michigan’s best renewable option because of its abundance.
“We’re naturally the 16th-best state for wind potential,” he said, “And 98 percent of that comes from the coast.”
Duncan Callaway, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and researcher in the Center for Sustainable Systems, said wind resources are better over lakes because the smoothness of water provides less friction.
But Andrew Hoffman, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources, said wind energy isn’t always the most reliable energy source because it’s only available when the wind is blowing.
Robben said another challenge facing wind energy is the transportation of the energy.
He said most wind farms are in remote locations, making it difficult to move the energy to urban areas. That requires transmission lines, which are expensive to build.
Instead, turbines could be mounted on building roofs so power could flow directly into the building, he said. But less energy would be harvested from those turbines.
The House passed a bill March 13 classifying wind energy systems as personal property, making them exempt from taxation.
If passed by the Senate and signed by Granholm, the law would make it easier for building owners to install wind turbines on their houses to harvest their own energy.
Robben said the University is considering installing these turbines.
Callaway said mounting wind turbines in the Great Lakes seems logical and might a most cost-effective solution.
But he said there are technical and legislative challenges that need to be overcome for the idea to become feasible. While no one has tried to put wind turbines in the Great Lakes, Callaway said past efforts in other states have been met with fierce opposition from neighborhood committees because residents claimed the turbines spoiled the view.
“It’s impractical to actually connect the wind turbines to the floor of the lake except very close to shore,” he said.
If engineers mounted turbine on the floors of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, they would also need to find a cost-effective way to protect the turbines from ice during winter.
Callaway said the engineering technologies exist today, but that the cost of anchoring the turbines to the floor and ensuring they aren’t damaged by ice exceeds the profit of selling the electricity.
For now, wind farmers will settle for land leased out by agricultural farmers, like Harvest Wind Farm in Huron County.
The farm’s 32 wind turbines began operating this month and generate enough electricity to power 15,000 average homes.
Singer said renewable energy is still in its infancy and that the odds of wind energy becoming more widespread anytime soon are slim.
“There is certainly a role for wind energy as we go into the future,” he said. “But the ability for, say a wind farm, to replace one of our baseload power plants is something that is likely not going to happen.”