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Why Michigan Leads America’s Coal Rush

Bad economy, heavy utility lobbying, fear of innovation top list

June 3, 2008 | By Andy Guy
and Tom Karas
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  One reasons new coal plant proposals do well in Michigan is that, in Lansing, elected leaders see the 19th- and 20th- century technology as a key to the state’s manufacturing future.
Clean-energy innovation is the greatest economic opportunity to come Michigan's way since the invention of the Model T assembly line. Yet, in Michigan, energy companies are headed the other way. They have proposed no less than seven new coal-fired power plants for the state—more than for any other in the nation—and that, clean-energy entrepreneurs say, will make it more difficult for Michigan to “go green.”

Across the country, they point out, other states are using innovative policies to attract companies that develop, manufacture, and deploy wind turbines, solar panels, other renewable power sources—and new technologies that blend green electricity into a solid clean-energy supply. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, for example, says that his state’s new clean-energy policies have already attracted $2 billion in green investments, and created more than 3,000 jobs.

But will Michigan, the nation’s 14th-windiest state, be able to do the same? That’s open to question because, while the governor and many state legislators are talking green energy, they are walking the 19th- and 20th-century energy path—welcoming coal even as other states reject such plants as outdated, dirty, climate-changing dinosaurs.

In fact, the Granholm administration recently approved Michigan’s first new coal-burning plant in 20 years, in Marquette, and seems ready to green light the rest, even though there’s an emerging consensus that the state needs no additional generating capacity for at least a decade.

So why is Michigan America’s coal-rush leader? Here are nine basic reasons:

  1. Economic upheaval. In the midst of heavy job losses and factory closings, tradition-minded economic development agencies and elected officials are anxious for new jobs and investments. Coal plant construction and operation do create many short-term and a few long-term jobs.
  2. Fear of change. A number of influential leaders in Michigan still view wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources as wild experiments that threaten to jack up energy rates and leave residents and business in the dark whenever the wind dies or the clouds roll in. They view coal as proven, not outdated.
  3. Industry influence. In 2007 the state's top two utilities, which between them own many of Michigan’s 20 coal plants and a nuclear plant—and hope to build more—spent more than $525,000 lobbying Lansing lawmakers and the governor, placing them among the heaviest-spending special interests in the state capital.
  4. Leadership crisis. Michigan’s elected leaders in Lansing are desperately short on future-oriented policies, leadership, and willingness to find common ground—all essential to a modern energy policy.
  5. A carbon-friendly administration. Although the governor recently formed the Michigan Climate Action Council, which likely will eventually call for cutting carbon emissions, her administration is doing the opposite in court—fighting grassroots legal efforts to force the state to regulate the main global-warming pollutant, CO2.
  6. The regulatory clock is ticking. The federal government is expected to adopt new carbon emission regulations soon. So utilities are rushing to construct new plants before new laws kick in, and see Michigan as carbon friendly.
  7. Aging infrastructure. Michigan has the nation’s second-oldest fleet of coal-fired power plants. Traditional business leaders and elected officials want to replace them with new ones, even though efficiency experts point out that updating the state’s outdated building codes would lower energy demand—and the need for old or new coal plants.
  8. Ready access to cheap fresh water. Coal plants require billions of gallons of cooling water, and the Great Lakes offer a matchless, robust supply. Given the governor’s and the Legislature’s willingness to let companies pump, bottle, and export water from aquifers, allowing that water to leave via steam-belching cooling towers seems assured.
  9. Expedient transportation. Great Lakes freighters can provide utility companies with convenient, relatively low-cost coal deliveries—as long as declining Great Lakes water levels, exacerbated by global warming, don’t fall too far.

Andy Guy is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy specialist in Grand Rapids, where he reports on transportation, water, and energy issues. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org; read his blog here. Tom Karas founded Michigan Energy Alternatives last year as part of his organizing efforts, which aim to replace new coal plant proposals in northern Michigan with energy efficiency and clean-energy initiatives. Reach him at logman39@hotmail.com.

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