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What is the future of Michigan’s energy infrastructure?

May 25, 2018

Utility companies are shutting down some of their older, less efficient coal-burning power plants. 

To generate the electricity to replace those old plants, utilities have to decide whether to build more coal-fired plant or go with natural gas, nuclear, renewable energy, or some combination.

DTE Energy recently decided to replace some of its older coal-burning plants with a natural gas burning plants, incorporating little additional renewable energy.

Sarah Mills is a senior project manager at the University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy. Mills spoke with Stateside on DTE’s decision to invest in natural gas instead of renewable energy sources. 

Natural gas is currently cheaper to produce than coal, and emits a lower level of greenhouse gases, but environmentalists are not happy with DTE's decision.  

“It's true that it does have a lower rate of greenhouse gas emissions than coal, but it still does produce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mills said. “And it’s not just from burning it, but its also from the process of producing it. In that production, it actually leaks methane, which is a more potent greenhouse.” 

Mills said there is also concern about the average lifespan of a natural gas plant. 

“When you build a brand-new natural gas plant, that plant has a life of 50 to 60 years,” Mills said. “So especially if it’s a big new plant, you are locking yourself into using that fossil fuel source for the next 50 to 60 years.”

Though natural gas is relatively cheap to produce today, according to Mills we do not know what could happen to the costs of production in the future. 

“In order to keep that natural gas plant running for the next 50 years, you are going to have to buy fuel on a continual basis and it's cheap now but who knows what will happen in the future,” Mills said. “That is among the reasons that when you really look over the long term, renewables, they may be more expensive up-front, but over the long haul you know exactly what your fuel is going to cost which is zero.”

Of course, there are also hurdles to implementing a renewable energy plan. Mills points out that the geographic footprint of a renewable power plant is much larger than that of a natural gas plant. 

“The natural gas plant that DTE has proposed for East China Township in St. Clair County for 1,100 megawatts is about 100 acres that it takes up,” Mills said. “DTE is also right now trying to get leases to build a wind farm in Branch County which is by Coldwater in the south central side of the state. And they are looking to lease 40,000 acres of land to sites 50 to 60 turbines, which would only be about 20 percent of the capacity of that natural gas plant.”  

While the state may not be able to abandon natural gas altogether, Mills says the biggest concerns is the size of this investment.

“I think most pragmatic environmentalists would say we do need natural gas as a bridge until we can get enough renewables. But I think the biggest reaction is just to the size of this plant and the fact that it’s going to lock us into that 1100 megawatts for the next 60 years.” 

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