From gas to oil: Michigan governor joins protest to block pipeline switch

The route of the Trunkline Pipeline. (Map via Energy Transfer Partners)

Michigan’s governor is speaking out against a plan by operators of a major natural gas pipeline to use it to move bottlenecked crude oil to the Gulf.

Gov. Rick Snyder and others have filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “intervene and protest” the move by Trunkline Gas Co., arguing that abandoning a natural gas pipeline that supplies nearly a third of Michigan’s natural gas would not serve citizens’ energy needs as furnaces are firing up for the winter.

The plan by Energy Transfer Partners would reverse its 770-mile Trunkline system to carry crude oil south, an effort to beat companies like Enbridge and TransCanada to move landlocked Canadian and Bakken oil to the Gulf of Mexico, according to Petroleum News.

“They are projecting that the switch to a Gulf-bound crude pipeline could expand Trunkline’s capacity to 400,000 barrels per day from 150,000 bpd.”

What biofuel is the best to move nations forward?

Harvesting sugarcane for ethanol production in Brazil. (Photo by Sweeter Alternative via Creative Commons)

Scientists are refining answers to the impacts of turning plants into energy.

A Michigan-led team of researchers from four nations are studying the best ways to increase the production of cleaner fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.

In years to come, they hope to develop policies for the U.S., Mexico, Argentina and Brazil that will maximize the benefits and minimize social and environmental costs associated with renewable energy development.

This is more than just another study on biofuels, lead researcher Kathy Halvorsen tells Midwest Energy News.

“Our study is unique in its integration across social and ecological systems and in its cross-national comparative framework,” said Halvorsen, a professor of natural resource policy at Michigan Technological University.

Digging deeper on ‘un-mined gold’ in Michigan oil wells

Charles McConnell, Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, speaks at Western Michigan University (photo courtesy WMU)

The answer to Michigan’s energy woes is right beneath our feet. So says an Obama administration official who points to “un-mined gold” in the Great Lakes state and using enhanced oil recovery to get at it.

The words came during a recent visit by Charles McConnell to Western Michigan University. McConnell is assistant secretary for Fossil Energy for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Western Michigan University (WMU) runs a Geological Repository for Research and Education.

As reported in The Kalamazoo Gazette, McConnell says enhanced oil recovery could create up to 3 million jobs, cut greenhouse gas emissions via carbon capture and “reduce American dependence on foreign resources.”

McConnell says there are billions of barrels of oil in Michigan alone, adding that the U.S. has spent $5 billion on “clean coal energy,” with another $10 billion invested by industry.

So where do McConnell’s figures come from? The “un-mined gold” is based on a report done for DOE that contains the map below (page 16).

A waste-eating bug for nuclear power?

Photo by Tim Collins/CC

Nuclear power offers benefits, for sure, like no carbon dioxide emissions. The downsides, of course, include expensive costs for plant construction and the nasty waste that’s left behind.

But what if a bug could zap and clean up that waste? Sound too good to be true?

Not necessarily, say researchers at Michigan State University.

Use of the microbe, a bacteria called Geobacter, is still in the testing stages. It could be scaled up, however, to deal with waste that comes from a commercial-size nuclear plant, according to microbiologist Gemma Reguera, at MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. The bug’s bioremediation abilities may sound impossible, but impossible doesn’t always last forever when it comes to science.

The powers of Geobacter have been known for almost 20 years: It can immobilize radioactive uranium after the toxic element has been enriched to produce electricity. The big news is that Reguera and her team have figured out exactly how the microbe is able to zap the element – with tiny hairs, or nanowires.

Old coal emits more than its share of pollutants: Report

photo coal pile

Photo by jpmueller99/CC

Old coal is the dirtiest kind, and it still keeps the lights burning in large swaths of the U.S.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office says the U.S. is getting much of its electricity from power plants that are more than 30 years old – the biggest polluters.

The GAO found that coal-fired units in operation since 1978 or earlier provided 45 percent of the electricity from fossil fuel in 2010, but produced more than their share of emissions compared to newer units: 75 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions (3.6 times), 64 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions (2.1 times), and 54 percent of carbon dioxide emissions (1.3 times) – pollutants linked to respiratory health effects, smog, and climate change.

Clean energy funding hot (and cold) in Ohio

Energy-efficient ice cream freezers installed at a new Pierre’s factory in Cleveland. (Photo Courtesy of Pierre’s Ice Cream Co.)

The Midwest is a hot spot for Clean Energy Funds, and an ice cream business is among the beneficiaries.

The scoop? So-called Clean Energy Funds, or CEFs, from sources including monthly surcharges on utility bills, have helped pay for energy efficiency and other improvements at places like Pierre’s Ice Cream Co., which opened a new, 35,000-square-foot factory in Cleveland almost a year ago.

Pierre’s used a state grant as part of a project that’s allowed the company to spend less money on the electricity needed to make its tasty treat — and keep the final product at an optimal temperature of minus 20 degrees when it’s stored in an on-site distribution center.

“The beauty of having all of this installed is that as we can increase volume, we will not be consuming more energy,” said Shelley Roth, president of Pierre’s Ice Cream Co.

“We’re hoping to see a savings of anywhere between 15 to 25 percent (on electricity costs).”

Renewables cheaper than coal, Michigan regulators say

photo michigan renewable energy solar panel flag sky

Photo by University of Michigan via Creative Commons

The CEO of a wind manufacturing company says renewable energy is a good investment. That’s to be expected.

But what about the Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates major utilities that get most of their power from coal?

The PSC has released its annual checkup [PDF] on the implementation of the state’s Renewable Energy Standard and its cost effectiveness. The highlights include:

  • More than $100 million in investments on advanced energy projects from 2008-2011, with job creation as an additional benefit;
  • An average cost for renewables of $91.19 per megawatt hour, compared to $133 per megawatt hour for a new coal plant.

That’s almost 42 bucks less per megawatt hour for cleaner energy sources like wind and solar, without nasty downsides like respiratory illness and mercury pollution.

Without much fanfare

This news on the economic upsides of renewables comes from the Energy Innovation Business Council, a trade organization of Michigan clean energy companies. The council is singing the praises of the PSC report. The PSC posted the 53-page document to its website last week, without much of any fanfare.

“Michigan manufacturers and businesses see firsthand how a renewable energy standard drives economic growth, innovation, investments and job creation, and this report validates the need for a strong renewable energy standard,” said Jeff Metts, the CEO mentioned earlier, who runs Astraeus Wind, a manufacturing company based in Eaton Rapids.

“Other states are aggressively pursuing strategies to grow their renewable energy and manufacturing sectors. Michigan must roll up our sleeves and aggressively position ourselves to compete for new opportunities and jobs, or get left behind.”

That last line includes a little politicking. Michigan is on track to meet its RES of 10 percent by 2015, according to the PSC report. Consumers Energy has even lowered its monthly renewable energy surcharge.

However, there’s still a long way to go. Michigan gets only about 3.6 percent of its electricity from renewables. And once the 10 percent by 2015 standard is met, Michigan will still be behind other states with higher standards, including Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota.

The PSC report concludes:

“The Commission is confident that Michigan has the potential to become a regional leader in development and manufacturing of renewable energy systems, building on the state’s engineering expertise, modernized machining, and investment in renewable energy in coming years.

“It appears that the Michigan incentive REC provision in the standard is meeting its intended purpose to encourage developers to maximize the amount of Michigan equipment and labor.”

Want to save PACE financing? Here’s your chance

Photo by Cayusa via Creative Commons

This is the kind of wonky stuff you could ignore, but shouldn’t, if you’d prefer to power your home with cleaner sources of energy.

PACE, which stands for Property Assessed Clean Energy, allowed local and state governments to loan funds to homeowners for renewable energy and efficiency improvements, and pay the loans back over time via an assessment on their property taxes.

That means the cost of the investment stays with the property, rather than the owner, making improvements with long payback periods more financially attractive.

Twenty-seven states adopted the program, including Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. But following the Fannie and Freddie sub-prime mortgage crisis and a related federal order not to underwrite mortgages for homes with PACE loans, many residential PACE programs were put on hold. So much for that.

But a federal court ruling in California has revived the discussion, according to Forbes.com.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the same folks who issued the order in 2010, have been told by a court to initiate a rulemaking process on PACE financing.

Public input needed

An advocacy group called PACE NOW is encouraging people to voice support for the program.

The bottom line, says the group: “PACE programs can drive energy projects that result in significant economic activity, federal, state and local tax revenue and jobs.” They point to examples like a PACE program in Boulder County, Colorado, which created more than 120 jobs, generated $20 million in overall economic activity and cut consumer energy use by more than $125,000 in its first year.

A national study commissioned by PACE NOW also concluded that $1 million spent on PACE improvements in four U.S. cities would generate $10 million in gross economic activity, a total of $1 million in federal, state and local tax revenue, and 60 jobs.

The four cities used in the study (by ECONorthwest) included Columbus, Ohio; along with Long Island, N.Y.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and San Antonio, Texas.

People who want to see PACE resurrected can submit comments through March 26.

New Michigan transmission line to multiply wind capacity

Michigan's wind capacity is currently limited by a lack of transmission lines - but not for long. (Photo by frankenzan via Creative Commons)

January 10, 2012

By Jeff Kart

Michigan’s Thumb is tapped out when it comes to the ability to host new wind farms.

The agricultural region of the state is home to two commercial-scale wind power developments, with a total of 72 turbines near Ubly and Elkton. There’s plenty of room to build additional wind farms, but not enough capacity on the transmission grid to handle the power they could generate.

Which is why a company called ITC Holdings Corp. is working on a $510 million Thumb Loop Project, to construct 140 miles of 345 kilovolt lines and four new substations across the Thumb, through Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac and St. Clair counties.

Think of it as a pipeline that carries renewable energy. The system, due to be in operation by 2015, will be capable of supporting up to 5,000 megawatts of capacity, or more than 2,800 additional wind turbines.

Local and county officials say there’s wide support for the transmission project, which will help the state meet a renewable energy standard enacted in 2008 that requires utilities to get 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015.

“A lot of the development that’s going to happen in the future in Huron County is dependent on that line. There’s no question about it,” said Jeff Smith, director of the Huron County Building and Zoning Department.

Working with landowners

An example of the monopoles that will be used to string 140 miles of double-circuit, 345,000-volt lines. (Courtesy ITC Holdings)

The Thumb Loop Project is to be constructed in stages, with the first segment on the western side of the Thumb due to begin in the spring of 2012, and be complete 2013, according to ITC.

The new transmission system is to be built mostly with tubular steel monopoles, up to 150 feet high depending on location, with average spans between poles of 900 feet. The bundle of wires required to carry the electricity will be about two inches in diameter.

ITC is currently working from west to east in the Thumb, on easement and right-of-way agreements with landowners, said Tom Vitez, vice president of planning for ITC in Novi, Michigan.

Siting of the line has already been approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission. Property owners will receive a one-time payment from ITC for putting a pole on their land, generally based on the fair market value of one acre.

“Right now, the Thumb basically has a very small 120-kilovolt loop through it,” Vitez said. “There is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 120 megawatts of (wind) generation in the Thumb. That’s all that the (existing) line can basically carry.”

The Thumb Loop Project will install a double-circuit line, which exponentially expands the amount of power than can be transmitted. The current, 120-kilovolt line is a single-circuit line, without as much capacity.

The $510 million Thumb Loop Project will be funded by ratepayers across 13 states that make up MISO (formerly the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator), Vitez said. The cost for an average residential customer is unclear, but is estimated to be about $1.10 per year, based on data from MISO.

New projects lining up

A map of the Thumb Loop Project. (Courtesy ITC Holdings)

ITC owns and maintains more than 8,200 miles of high-voltage electric lines in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, along with 236 substations. The company has targeted the Thumb for improvements in part because the region was identified in 2009 as having the highest wind potential in Michigan by a Wind Energy Resource Zone Board appointed by the Public Service Commission.

Wind energy developers are already making plans to connect to the new Thumb Loop.

Minneapolis-based RES Americas Inc. is developing two wind projects in the region, one called Pheasant Run and another called Deerfield, with a combined total of 200 to 250 turbines spread over 60,000 acres, according to development manager Brad Lila.

Other wind projects are under development in the region by companies including Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, Exelon, Geronimo, and NextEra.

A small group of residents, however, say enough turbines have already been planted in the Thumb. They don’t want to see more big blades on the landscape, and say existing turbines near Ubly and Elkton have created noise and other problems.

“They are talking now a total of 700 (turbines) in Huron County” from projects under development, said Carl Duda, a farmer from Bad Axe, at the tip of the Thumb. “We’ve got 72 now. It’s 10 times that. That is scary.”

Duda, 68, was part of a petition drive last year to stop the Deerfield project. He and about a dozen others were able to gather 350 signatures by a late-November deadline. A total of 667 were needed to put the question on a February 2012 ballot.

Duda says he ran out of time, and into problems from people he claims were harassed after signing a similar petition that forced a November 2010 vote on wind projects proposed by DTE Energy and Heritage Sustainable Energy. That ballot proposal was approved, 60 percent to 40 percent.

”It’s splitting the county up,” Duda said of wind power projects. “There’s no two ways about it.”

Smith said he believes most people in the region are enthusiastic about the Thumb Loop Project. “Most of the people I’ve talked to have been in favor of it,” Smith said. “This community is farm-driven, and farmers are behind it … (The opposition) is a minority group, for sure.”

There’s also concern in the county and state about a proposal from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to eliminate the personal property tax on equipment like wind turbines. That would mean local governments like Huron County couldn’t collect taxes from such equipment, which bring millions of dollars into local coffers.

Either way, Lila says the ITC improvements should help lower the cost of wind power in Michigan, making it more competitive with traditional sources of power like coal.

Already, wind power is selling for as low as $61 per megawatt hour in Michigan, compared to $115 per megawatt hour when the first wind projects were constructed here, according to state records. The cost of power from a new, conventional coal plant in Michigan is higher, at about $133 per megawatt hour.

“Huron County has some of the best wind you will find in all of the Eastern U.S.,” Lila said. “The potential to export it out of there is real.”

Vitez, from ITC, agrees. The current process for building a wind farm also includes costly studies of whether the current infrastructure can handle more capacity.

“It provides renewable developers with some certainty,” he said of the Thumb Loop Project. “Now, projects will be able to be fast-tracked.”

Jeff Kart is principal at Enviroprose, an online communications consulting business based in Bay City, Michigan, that specializes in environmental media. He spent 14 years at The Bay City Times, the last several as an environmental reporter.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a November 2010 vote was on two RES projects.

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Michigan towns dig deep to reduce energy costs

Workers drill a geothermal bore hole some 500 feet deep in Wyandotte, Michigan. (Photo courtesy Wyandotte Municipal Services)

Despite being in one of the worst regions in the country for geothermal power, two Michigan cities are nevertheless finding ways to save on energy costs by tapping the earth’s natural heat.

In the Detroit suburbs of Wyandotte and Dearborn Heights, local officials are using federal grants and city funds to help reduce the upfront cost for residents to convert to geothermal heating and cooling. Geothermal systems can cost several times more to install than traditional central air conditioning or natural gas furnaces, but the additional costs are paid back through utility savings in 5-10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Geothermal energy works by digging wells to a spot in the earth where there’s a relatively constant core temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Water or an antifreeze solution is circulated to the spot through a closed loop of plastic pipes. During the winter, the fluid collects heat from the earth and carries it through the system and into the building. During the summer, the system is reversed, and the building is cooled by pulling heat back into the ground.

The systems work by using ground-source heat pumps, which take the place of a furnace or air-conditioning unit and use less electricity.

A shared resource

In Dearborn Heights, Ron Amen is spearheading a project to convert the city’s 33,000-square-foot senior center to geothermal heating and cooling. In a large grassy area next to the center, crews would drill wells to service the building and up to 400 neighborhood homes, said Amen, the city’s director of community and economic development.

“The building is 57 years old, and the boiler is 57 years old,” he said of the senior center. “Our superintendent of building maintenance tells me he’ll be surprised if it gets through another heating season.”

The senior center doesn’t have central air, either, and relies on a half-dozen old, inefficient window units in various rooms.

The nearby homes are 1,200-1,500 square feet, and almost all of them are bungalows or small ranches. “These people would see probably anywhere from a 50-75 percent reduction in heating costs with natural gas, and cooling costs,” he said.

Amen is working with Advanced Energy Group of Ann Arbor on the project. He’s currently seeking financing for a portion of the $700,000 cost, and plans to seek final approval later this year from the City Council. The project would also include new windows and improved insulation.

“Between the savings that we would realize in our heating and cooling costs, and what money I would be able to come up with in the next few years from community block grants, I’m hoping to get it paid off in eight years,” Amen said.

The big expense for a homeowner who wants to convert to geothermal are bores that have to be drilled, Amen said. “Here in this area, you have to go down about 500 feet to get a temperature of about 51 degrees.”

Residents in Dearborn Heights wouldn’t have to put in money upfront. They can receive a $5,000-$6,000 federal grant for switching their homes from natural gas to geothermal, Amen said. They would sign those grant checks over to the city, and make monthly payments for the new systems. The payments would be equal to what they’re currently paying for heating and cooling, with the savings from the geothermal system going to pay off the cost of the installed equipment. Paying off each system would take 4-5 years.

Amen said he has been shopping around the senior center plan to homeowners in Dearborn Heights, and has received an enthusiastic response so far.

A geothermal utility

The city of Wyandotte has gone a step further, and established  a geothermal utility with existing funds, said Melanie McCoy, general manager at Wyandotte Municipal Services, which provides power within city limits using a boiler that burns coal and shredded tires.

McCoy sees geothermal heating and cooling as another product that the city utility can provide for residents. “All we’re trying to do is remove a barrier” to installation, McCoy said.

According to McCoy, an average geothermal installation can cost $20,000, with $12,000 for the heat pump and $8,000 for the well.

Wyandotte is rolling out its new product gradually, and has established a rate system for homeowners. People can contract to have a system installed by the city, or have the city maintain a system installed by a third party, with various payment plans supported by a 30 percent federal tax credit and city utility rebates. A $26 monthly fee can replace the cost of drilling the well. About a dozen homes are expected to be converted this year.

McCoy says residents who make the switch will save money in the long run compared to conventional heating and cooling systems, and the city utility will benefit from reduced electricity demand in the summer.

In a separate project, Wyandotte is using a $7.8 million federal neighborhood stabilization grant to construct 25 new homes and rehabilitate 19 existing structures, about half of which are already under contract or in the works.

A quarter of those homes will be sold to low-income families for about $120,000, and fitted with geothermal heating and cooling systems, said Mark Kowalewski, Wyandotte city engineer.

“The reason I did geothermal is, I really can’t do anything with the mortgage payment or the interest or the taxes,” Kowalewski said. “But I can make it more cost-effective for the low-income person by making the utilities as low as possible.”

The geothermal bill for the homes will be about $28 a month, to cover maintenance. Residents will pay electrical costs for a geothermal pump that replaces a natural gas furnace, but can expect to save $1,500 to $1,700 a year in heating and cooling costs, he said. The goal is to finish all 44 homes by February 2013.

McCoy, from the Wyandotte utility, says a long-term plan is to create a direct-use system in her city — an infrastructure of wells and pipes that could provide geothermal heat to city homes. “We’re a pretty compact city,” she said, with about 26,000 residents in a 5-square-mile area.

‘In the future, you’re not going to have a choice’

Despite these efforts, Michigan isn’t necessarily a hot spot for geothermal energy. Limestone in Wyandotte and clay in Dearborn Heights make drilling more expensive than in other areas. The situation is similar throughout the Midwest.

“In general, the potential in the Midwest is really small,” said Rob Podgorney, a senior scientists at Idaho National Laboratory, which conducts geothermal and other energy research.

The western U.S. has a higher potential overall for geothermal energy, including heating, cooling and electricity generation, Podgorney said.

“If you go deep enough, you will find hot enough water or hot enough rocks” for a geothermal heating and cooling system, he explained. “In the Midwest, you have to go a whole lot deeper.”

Podgorney said Wyandotte’s geothermal utility appears to be the first of its kind in the Midwest. A handful of western states already have similar programs in place.

Amen, from Dearborn Heights, believes it’s only a matter of time before geothermal takes over as a dominant source of heating and cooling in the U.S. Besides being more efficient, geothermal doesn’t emit greenhouse gases associated with natural gas.

“In the future, you’re not going to have a choice,” he said. “You’re going to have to go with geothermal, that’s just the way it’s going to be with the rise in prices of natural gas. These fuels are finite. They’re not going to be around forever.”

Jeff Kart is principal at Enviroprose, an online communications consulting business based in Bay City, Michigan, that specializes in environmental media. He spent 14 years at The Bay City Times, the last several as an environmental reporter.

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This work by Midwest Energy News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.