View from the Midwest: Renewables on a Roll

November 30, 2020

If we’re going to deploy enough renewable energy to make a difference, the US midwest is going to have to be a big player. The fossil fuel industry knows that, and has devoted a lot of time and energy to disinformation, distortions, and delay to keep those kind of projects from going forward.

Anti-clean energy efforts have been directed by Washington DC based lobbying groups like E&E Legal, a group I know well, having interviewed the senior scientists who have been targeted and harassed by the coal-funded front for a decade, as well as engaging some of the principle players in debate.
Fossil advocates have been shrewd enough to understand that the choke-point for renewable energy development is at the county, and more often, the township level in rural areas. Applying intimidation and disinformation campaigns to these local boards and governing commissions can be effective in blocking developments.

They’ve also been successful in some cases making clean energy a culture-war issue, similar to Obamacare.
And, like in the case of Obamacare, buzzwords and memes that worked 9 or 10 years ago have become less effective, as citizens have gotten more familiar with the program. Communities that have been living near wind turbines, and increasingly, solar farms, for a decade or more, have learned that the fossil-funded scare stories and myths are just that.
Renewable energy is succeeding when good information gets to the citizens of rural areas and small towns where a lot of new solar and wind parks are going to be sited. This year, at least in my neck of the woods, we’ve been turning the corner on the astro-turf campaign against clean energy.

Here’s my newly-published summary of the situation.

Morning Sun (Mt Pleasant, MI):

As a videographer, most of the last decade, I’ve traveled to the Arctic, to embed with science teams on and around the Greenland Ice sheet. This year, with travel restrictions, I’ve stayed closer to home, documenting construction of the spectacular Isabella wind development in rural townships north of Mt Pleasant.

One of most under-reported stories in Michigan this year has been the explosion of renewable energy development across the central part of the state.

Living as I do in Midland County, within an hour’s drive from me there are two new wind farms that have gone online in the last year, three wind parks completing construction currently, and several more in development stage.

In addition, Shiawassee County is hosting Michigan’s largest solar energy project (so far) — with a host of other solar efforts in the pipeline.

Nationally, this is part of a larger trend, an energy revolution that is shifting the U.S. away from coal and fossil fuels. Last week the international accounting firm Lazard released the newest all-in cost of energy figures, ranking the different electrical generation technologies. Solar and wind rank as the least-cost new sources of new generation.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that, during the COVID-19 crisis, solar and wind energy have been a haven for investors, while oil and gas demand has collapsed, and may have peaked.

A recent report in Bloomberg News suggested that in the U.S., growth in natural gas may have peaked, while coal is all but dead.

Investment in new oil exploration is declining, as oil majors BP and Shell have written off 18 and 22 billion dollars in oil and gas assets, respectively, meaning those resources may stay in the ground permanently.

Oil giant Exxon was recently dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial average. While NextEra, a smaller company with a huge footprint in wind and solar energy, now rivals, and briefly, surpassed, the oil giant in stock value — a sign that investors are moving strongly in the direction of clean power.

Tesla motors is well known for its sleek electric cars, but is also a key innovator in solar and energy storage technologies — and Wall Street’s bullish take on clean energy has given Tesla stock a market value greater than Ford and GM combined.

A recent study from the University of California at Berkeley showed that the U.S. can, with current technology, reduce carbon emissions 90 percent by 2035, while lowering the cost of energy.

Recognizing Michigan’s emerging energy leadership, the Wall Street Journal recently profiled Consumer’s Energy CEO Patti Poppe, who has spearheaded a plan to reduce carbon output at the nation’s 10th largest utility 90 percent, by 2040, or even sooner. Consumers has plans for major growth in renewables, particularly solar, in coming years.

Michigan has a little known secret weapon for bringing large amounts of variable renewables onto the grid. The “pumped storage” power plant at Ludington, originally built in the 70s to store excess generation from nuclear power plants, is, in effect, one of the world’s largest batteries, with a potential output on the scale of the Hoover Dam.

With recently completed updates, the facility will be able to store vast amounts of renewable energy, for instance, at night when wind is blowing, but demand is small, and release that energy during peak daytime hours.

In addition, a rush of other new battery technologies is hitting the market, showing the same kind of cost declines that wind and solar have seen over recent decades — ensuring that energy storage will be an integral part of the “distributed energy” clean grid of the near future.

The change promises to breath new economic life into hard-hit rural and farming areas across the heartland, something Michigan communities have already seen in new funding for local roads, schools, fire departments, sheriff patrols, libraries and senior services.

Word has gotten out from communities that were early adopters, that renewable energy development is a clean, quiet neighbor that blends readily into daily life, and provides a stream of long term benefits that will help revitalize Michigan’s small towns for decades to come.

Perhaps most significantly, in a country as divided as the U.S. is today — the move to clean energy has created allies out of a diverse cross section of citizens, land owners, public officials, environmental activists, farmers, unions, electrical utilities, and even religious groups, from left to right, across the spectrum.

They are conducting the broadest, most respectful, productive and successful right/left dialogue in the country today.

The sentiment that our children deserve a limitless clean source of energy, at a low price, supporting good jobs, on a fully livable planet, is the common bond between them all.

One Response to “View from the Midwest: Renewables on a Roll”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    OK, I saw a couple of masks…but not enough.

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