By Nick McWherter
Capital News Service
LANSING- Wind farms and solar power are finally getting a big-scale opportunity to prove their worth. Consumers Energy announced last week the closure of seven coal-fired power plants in Michigan and cancelled construction of another to focus on clean energy.
Consumers Energy provides natural gas and electricity to nearly 6.5 million of Michigan’s 10 million residents.
Consumers will phase out three plants at the J.R. Whiting Generating Complex near Luna Pier, two at the B.C. Cobb Generating Plant in Muskegon and two at the Karn/Weadock Generating Complex near Bay City.
Many of these coal-fired plants are outdated, including some built in the early 1950s, said Dan Bishop, public information officer for Consumers Energy. The cancelled project is a clean coal plant near Bay City that was proposed in 2007.
The company is investing $1.6 billion into five major coal-fired units, designed to make Michigan’s air cleaner by reducing emissions, Bishop said. The utility isn’t making up all of the energy production lost by closing the plants with alternatives.
Consumers began construction last month on its first wind-farm, the Lake Winds Energy Park in Mason County. The 100-megawatt facility is scheduled to begin serving customers late in 2012.
The expansion of clean energy in Michigan and by Consumers is the result of a law passed in 2008, Bishop says.
Michigan’s Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy act of 2008 requires utilities to supply 10 percent of their energy in the form of renewable energy by 2015. Currently Consumers produces five percent with renewable energy.
“There are simply smarter ways to produce energy then relying on coal,” said Bruce Nilles, national director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. The inherent costs associated with mining and burning coal make clean energy more attractive, he said. Economically and environmentally, coal does not make sense.
Michigan is now in position to make strides in clean energy throughout the state, he said.
“There is a significant shift going on in the electric sector,” Nilles said. “Michigan has a chance to really be at the forefront. It has one of the oldest coal fleets in the country; many of these plants are literally teetering. It presents a tremendous opportunity to put people back to work and eliminate all the pollution that today is having such profound impacts across the state of Michigan.”
Beside jobs that are created through construction, Bishop said that the focus on clean energy at Consumers would result in current workers being transferred from closing plants to other facilities.
Others feel that expanding more in clean energy throughout the state can create jobs in the energy field in Michigan.
“Michigan has been in a prime position to expand on our clean energy economy and create a lot more clean energy jobs,” said Tiffany Hartung, organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. Michigan has some clean energy jobs, but she says that there is potential to create a lot more.
Hartung believes that more can be done by Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to capitalize on clean energy opportunities.
“While we have been missing clean energy opportunities, he has gone out of his way to re-permit coal-fired power plants for Wolverine in Holland that was denied under the previous administration,” she said.
Advocates are calling on Snyder to support clean energy job creation and require utility providers to develop plans to make advancements into the future.
Consumers Energy’s reduced reliance on coal could help them lead the state in clean energy.
Consumers Energy, the second largest utility in the state, has provided the direction that coal is not the future of energy in Michigan, Hartung said.
She said the economics of coal doesn’t make sense. There is no need for coal plants and Consumers Energy is showing that clean energy and energy efficiency are better for ratepayers and better for their shareholders.
Consumers’ decision to close the seven coal plants comes after they announced it was lowering costs to its 1.8 million customers for renewable energy charges, a projected $54 million savings.
Hartung said that the proposed coal plant that was cancelled was the 159th plant out of 200 proposed throughout the country that has suspended operations in recent years.
Clean energy in Michigan could put many back to work, she said.
Manufacturing jobs and supply chain jobs that stem from the expansion and generation of wind farms and clean energy resources will create the most jobs for the state, Hartung said.