The role of wind and solar in the future of power
By Stacy Gittleman
Early August – specifically August 10 – will be remembered as an important day for the environment. The United Nations issued a grim Code Red alert about the fate of the increasingly hotter planet. That same day the U.S. Congress passed a stripped-down $973 billion infrastructure deal which calls for the electrification of the nation’s transportation system while eliminating funding to clean up the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels to power its electric grid. At the same time, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan Governor, in selling to broadcast media a $3.5 trillion Budget Reconciliation Bill, announced that the nation must double the size of its electric transmission grid so it can harness the power of wind and solar energy – 80 percent of a utility's energy portfolio to power the electric grid must come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2030, and 100 percent of renewables by 2035.
It’s a time of increasing challenges and change when it comes to the environment.
But change is hard. For over a century, Americans have relied on centrally-located power plants fueled by coal, gas, nuclear, or hydropower to generate the electricity needed to keep the lights on. The transmission grid transports high voltage in one direction – away from the plant by the way of those high voltage transmission towers and wires that string along hills and highways, and towards the lower voltage distribution grids of villages, townships and cities that bring electricity to homes and businesses. This is how most Americans perceive they will always get their electricity delivered.
The multi-directional, fragmented electrical grid of the 21st century is becoming far more complex. In addition to large utility-scale plants, modern grids also involve variable energy sources like solar and wind, energy storage systems, and small-scale energy generation systems like rooftop and community “solar garden” solar microgrids that can inject the excess power that they generate back into the grid.
“Our electricity model for over 100 years has been build a big generation plant and send the voltage out on one-direction lines to the customer,” said Ed Rivet, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum. “With adding wind and solar energy, along with battery storage, onto the grid, we are now moving to a place where there will be many points of transmission, where electrical power generation is going to be all over the place, including the electric car that is going to be charged in your garage that can power your house for two days as a backup generator or during peak electricity usage times.”
Rivett explained the traditional idea of the energy utility serving as a one-way energy management service is all going to change.
“One day, we will end up with in-house batteries that will store power generated by wind turbines that produce electricity overnight and then power our homes by day. It is a far more complex electric system than we have now, but if we can make renewable resources work together, we can create a far more affordable, on-demand dispatchable energy resource and at the same time, reduce our carbon emissions. It’s a win-win all around.”
To achieve President Biden’s net-zero carbon goals of 2050, Princeton University researchers from the Net-Zero America study concluded that this would require a 60 percent expansion of the U.S. high-voltage transmission network by 2030, as a head start. Transmission line capacity would have to be tripled through 2050 to connect the needed wind and solar power to the grid. Capital investment for new power lines would need to total $360 billion through 2030 and $2.4 trillion by 2050, the Princeton study estimated.
While the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2019 stated that most of the nation's electricity would still be generated by natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy, all states are working to increase their renewable portfolios. In 2020, electricity generation from coal decreased 20 percent from 2019 while small-scale solar energy increased nine percent. Utility-scale generation (from projects greater than one megawatt) increased 26 percent, and small-scale solar, such as grid-connected rooftop solar panels, increased 19 percent.
Wind, the most prevalent and visible source of green energy, grew 14 percent between 2019 and 2020.
Combined, renewables generated a record 834 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity, or about 21 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States. Only natural gas, at 1,617 billion kWh, produced more electricity than renewables in the United States in 2020.
The cost of renewables is also dropping sharply. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, newly installed renewable power capacity increasingly costs less than the cheapest power generation options based on fossil fuels. New solar and wind projects are undercutting the cheapest of existing coal-fired plants, the report finds. Solar power experienced the sharpest cost decline from 2010 to 2019 at 82 percent, onshore wind at 40 percent, and offshore wind at 29 percent.
Michigan's renewable portfolio increased from 10 percent in 2015 to 15 percent in 2021. Consumers Energy has announced plans to increase its use of renewable energy to 35 percent by 2025, and 47 percent by 2030. DTE continues to build renewable energy facilities and has a goal of reducing carbon emission by 50 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2040.
Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Deputy Director James Clift said Michigan is poised to produce electricity from solar and wind at competitive prices. At the same time, Clift says it is in the best interest of the country to tie regional systems together in a way that allows surplus power to flow from one region to another based on demand.
"These actions will help to stabilize energy prices for Michigan families and businesses," said Clift. "To every extent possible we would like to see those resources located in Michigan and the energy dollars paid by Michigan residents remain in the pockets of Michigan companies, landowners, and families. In addition, property tax revenues from these systems would support local governments and schools within the state. (EGLE's) Council on Climate Solutions is helping EGLE prepare the MI Healthy Climate Plan, which will make recommendations to the governor about steps needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Michigan on the way to meeting the state's MI Healthy Climate Plan goal of statewide carbon neutrality by 2050."
State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said though the Democratic minority has not seen any of its pro-renewables legislation passed in Lansing, he maintains his pursuit of furthering clean energy in Michigan, which he contends has a lot of opportunities to develop that can bring about environmental, manufacturing and economical benefits.
“It is smart and makes sense for the state to place ourselves where the energy economy is going, and that means developing renewable energy resources,” said Irwin, who since 2018 has introduced about a dozen pieces of legislation to the state legislature that pertain to the environment and natural resources.
“We've got considerable resources with wind and manufacturing capacities in Michigan,” Irwin said. “I think it would be financially wise for the state to continue its promotion of clean energy.”
According to a 2016 Pew Research survey on American's opinions towards renewables and other energy sources, 89 percent of Americans favor more solar panel farms, while just nine percent oppose. A large share of Americans also support the growth of wind turbine farms (83 percent favor, 14 percent oppose).
But while respondents may express favoring renewables in a telephone survey, public opinion sways differently when large-scale wind or solar projects are proposed out one’s back door. According to a February 2021 study from Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law that examined public opposition to wind and solar energy in every state, local governments have enacted 100 policies to block or restrict 152 contested renewable energy facilities.
In another study, a January 2020 Brookings Institute report on renewables and land use found that people largely approve of renewable energy in theory.
Political attitudes toward renewable energy in the United States are less polarized than those toward climate change. Several states that vote Republican are leaders in renewable energy, including Texas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. The study revealed that 82 percent of Americans support tax rebates for energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels.
But perception sours when a utility or developer proposes a modest or large-scale wind or solar installation that may change the local landscape. Detractors of renewables argue that solar and wind farms are eyesores, noisy, take up too much land space, kill birds, or produce energy at inconsistent rates. Others contend that the mineral mining required to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels, and energy storage batteries only causes further environmental degradation.
Kevon Martis of Lenawee County a decade ago founded the grassroots organization Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition with a mission to block “big energy projects” from coming into rural areas of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Coming to the aid of other pop-up grassroots Facebook groups in the state, such as Isabella Wind Watch and No More Wind Turbines in Michigan, Martis is a well-known opponent of wind and solar. He denies he is funded by coal and oil special interests like the Koch Brothers despite indications to the contrary. Even so, he said fighting wind and solar at the grassroots level is not a partisan issue. He pointed to the success of environmentalists and tribal leaders stopping a wind project in the Upper Peninsula that proposed a wind farm installation to be built in pristine forestland. He also said that natural gas, rather than wind and solar, will get the country closer to meeting zero emissions standards.
“Our position is primarily one of land use,” said Martis, who has served on multiple zoning boards in Lenawee County. “Wind and solar are the opposite of being environmentally friendly because they take up more land than any nuclear or coal-fired power plant in Michigan.”
Martis claimed that it is getting more difficult to get wind projects approved in Michigan. He fears that large-scale wind and solar farms eat up the best farmland in the state. He said it would be more favorable if Michigan extended incentives for individualized rooftop solar power programs to electrify homes and businesses and put power on the grid instead of wind and solar installations taking up acres of farmland.
“What we are seeing in my county right now is that developers are coming in and asking for 50 acres to put up a solar wind farm. They are not asking to put this up on a brownfield or a highway median. They want to put wind and solar on good farmland. If the developers got their way in all my surrounding townships, we would have 12,000 acres of solar on some of the best farmland in the United States. It’s monstrous.”
When it comes to people in rural areas objecting to the presence of wind turbines on farmland, Michigan state Senator Irwin said residents may have a "bona fide" argument about nuisances such as flickering light bouncing around inside homes or the low hum emitted by the turbines, but he said these same residents in other cases hold up the Right to Farm Act, which upholds the landowner's rights to use the land productively. And he said there is validation in some cases that private landowners such as farmers should take into consideration some of the ways they use their land if it upsets neighbors. However, he is always surprised when he hears from people who live in rural areas and cling to the Right to Farm Act do a "180 degree turn when it comes to the presence of wind turbines on farmland."
“The Right to Farm Act in Michigan states that farmers and landowners are protected from nuisance claims and lawsuits from their neighbors, because farmers have a right to do what they want on their land,” said Irwin. “I have gone out to these areas to get an understanding of what those living near wind farms are going through. I do not want to be dismissive of their concerns. “
Irwin said just as adjacent land rites and compulsory pooling have been enacted in the oil and gas industry when landowners adjacent to a property used for oil and gas drilling reap some financial benefit from that well, so too should those living around wind farms see some benefits to living around them.
“Compulsory pooling has been known to dramatically increase the likelihood that communities will say yes to wind and solar projects, instead of fighting them with lawsuits and zoning opposition,” Irwin said. “If they know they may have to look at a wind turbine for the rest of their life, it helps if they are getting (a benefit).”
Utility officials say conversations with the public begin long before a shovel is put in the ground for a renewable energy project.
Consumers Energy spokesperson Katie Carey said the company, which this summer announced it will be quitting coal by 2025 and will deploy 90 percent clean energy resources, including adding 8,000 megawatts of solar by 2040, takes pride in its community engagement efforts. The utility operates wind farms in Hillsdale, Tuscola, Gratiot and Mason counties.
"We will remain diligent, ensuring our turbines are following local ordinances which include requirements for distance to both participating and nonparticipating inhabitable structures and roadways,” said Carey. “We have also found many residents appreciate the jobs, economic investment, and income associated with renewable energy projects. We will continue to work with local leaders and residents to address any siting concerns as we invest in new projects around the state.”
But with the mainstreaming of wind and solar energy, those living in rural communities who host these existing or projected wind farms do not want to see their lakefront or big sky horizons further dotted with the spin of these structures.
The Renewable Energy Zoning Database, built and maintained by the University of Michigan's Graham Sustainability Institute in partnership with EGLE, is the first compilation of all renewable energy ordinances across the state and the first of its kind in the nation.
According to the database, over half of Michigan's more than 1,800 zoning districts have considered incorporating language regarding addressing the development of renewable energy projects in their zoning ordinances. Language in these zoning updates includes residential concerns about the height of turbine towers, the aesthetics of the overall project, the amount of time the turbines emit a shadow flicker onto adjacent property or noise emissions.
The latest to join the ranks is Sidney Township in Montcalm County. The county has a population of 63,342 with a population density of about 90 people per square mile, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. On July 9, Sidney Township amended its zoning ordinance to include language that would restrict the scope of utility wind turbine projects in response to a proposal from Apex Clean Energy to create Montcalm Wind – a project entailing the construction of 75 windmills which could generate up to 375 megawatts of carbon-free energy, enough to power 90,000 homes at any given time.
Although Apex states the windmills would be placed on active farmland that could be simultaneously used for agriculture and the payout in local tax revenue to surrounding municipalities and hosting farmers could be in the tens of millions of dollars, residents are attacking the restrictive ordinance, saying the wind turbines are an encroachment on their bucolic lifestyle.
Tom Walworth of nearby Stanton Township, has enjoyed getting away to a family cottage on Dickerson Lake, just northwest of Sidney, and is pleased with the passing of the ordinance because he fears the presence of 400-foot turbines would be an eyesore on the horizon.
On August 7, the Stanton Township board imposed a nine-month moratorium on construction for the proposed Scotia Wind project, which would include 12 575-foot turbines in Adams and Stanton townships, near Whealkate Bluff.
Walworth said he is pleased that his township, as well as Sidney Township, are slowing down or restricting the growth of wind energy through such ordinances.
It is not that he is against moving towards renewable energy such as wind, it is just that the rural and scenic nature of Montcalm County will be tarnished, according to Walworth. Plus, he said it would be more appropriate to make use of the “bubble” of natural gas located under Michigan for a source of energy supply.
“Montcalm County has many inland lakes and there are people who like to enjoy the quiet and the recreational aspects of the area. (The addition of wind turbines) will turn this area into an industrial park. There are plenty of other places in Michigan where they can put up wind farms,” Walworth said.
Brad Neumann of the MSU Extension serves as an educational resource for local and tribal governments across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the areas of land use planning and zoning. He specializes in zoning for renewable energy and said amendments to local zoning ordinances are a powerful tool being wielded to slow or curtail the growth of wind turbine projects in the more rural areas of the state.
"A local government zoning ordinance is quite effective (in curbing wind farm projects) because in Michigan, this type of land use is not one that the state has reserved any power or authority to regulate," said Neumann. "There are certain examples of land uses – such as mining for sand and gravel where the state has preempted local government ordinances to a degree, as sand and gravel are needed by the general public for highway and road improvement. But right now, the state cannot prohibit a local zoning ordinance that restricts land use for renewable energy.”
For now, Neumann said Michigan, at the state legislature level, has not taken zoning power away from local governments that would circumvent local restrictions in favor of moving ahead with renewable energy projects. "These zoning ordinances can be so prohibitive when it comes to property setbacks, noise restrictions, and height restrictions that it may not be economical for a company to continue with a project," he noted.