How Michigan’s 50% Clean Energy Target Could Open New Emissions Reduction Opportunities

By Peter Bronski and Henry Richardson

Last month environmental advocates led by activist Tom Steyer and a coalition known as Clean Energy, Healthy Michigan claimed a major victory in advancing the state toward a clean energy—and a clean air—future.

Faced with a looming November 2018 ballot initiative that would have required 30% of Michigan’s electricity sales to come from renewable energy sources by 2030, the state’s two largest utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, jointly announced instead to target 50% clean energy by 2030. At least 25% of their electricity sales will come from renewable energy. The balance of the target they’ll meet largely through energy efficiency.

This latest major development comes fast on the heels of two other notable bright spots earlier this year. In February, Consumers Energy announced that it would phase out its coal-fired generation over the next two decades, while also targeting generating at least 40% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2040. Then in April, DTE Energy submitted its 2018 Renewable Energy Plan to the Michigan Public Service Commission. The plan calls for doubling the utility’s renewable energy capacity by 2022 from 1 to 2 GW and driving $1.7 billion in clean energy investment, largely in wind energy with a small amount of solar.

All told, it comes as a big breath of fresh air to a state that wrestled with the problem for years.

Michigan’s fight for cleaner air

At the beginning of this decade, Michigan and its residents faced an air quality crisis underscored by two damning reports released just months apart. In May 2011, the journal Health Affairs published research showing how chronic air pollution around schools in Michigan was linked to poorer student health and academic performance, disproportionately affecting low-income and racial or ethnic minority communities. One of the chief sources of air quality problems? Power plant emissions.

Two months later, in July 2011 the Natural Resources Defense Council released its Toxic Twenty report, shining the spotlight of attention on those states with the highest levels of toxic air pollution from power plants. Michigan’s overall total industrial toxic air pollution was among the worst in the country. It ranked seventh worst specifically for toxic air pollution from the electricity sector, which accounted for 73% of the state’s air pollution.

By 2016, Michigan’s air pollution situation had started to improve according to the State’s annual air quality report, but still had a long way to go. In March of that year, Medical Daily–part of the Newsweek Media Group and boasting more than 8 million unique visitors per month and 2.2 million Facebook followers—declared Michigan’s air quality problem much bigger than the infamous water problem in Flint. More needed to be done to address the issue.

Clearer skies ahead for Michigan

At a time when other states from Hawaii to Oregon to New York have set bold renewable energy and clean energy targets, Michigan’s is particularly exciting because of how much positive impact it could have.

Last year fossil fuels generated just shy of 60% of Michigan’s electricity; coal alone accounted for 37%, according to numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Renewables including hydro, meanwhile, generated just 8%.

According to a basic WattTime analysis, every megawatt of new wind energy built in Michigan today will displace about two-thirds coal-fired generation and one-third natural gas-fired generation. Thus based on today’s grid mix in Michigan, new renewable energy projects could avoid around a whopping 1,700 lbs CO2 emissions per MWh of generation. To put such numbers into perspective, that 1,700-lb swing in Michigan’s marginal grid emissions from dirty to clean makes the emissionality benefits of new renewables—how much fossil-fueled emissions are avoided for each MW of new renewables built—among the best in the country.

In fact, on an avoided-emissions-per-new-renewable-megawatt basis, renewable energy investments in Michigan are about twice as effective as similar investments in places such as parts of California, Florida, and Massachusetts and roughly 1.5x as effective as neighboring Great Lakes states such as New York.

And the benefits don’t stop there. As Michigan’s grid gets closer to its 50% clean energy target, the grid’s “personality” will change, too. It’ll go from being a “monotone” personality defined by a more or less steady stream of traditional, dirty, coal-fired baseload generation to a “dynamic” personality characterized by much larger minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour swings in marginal grid emissions depending on whether natural gas or variable renewables are supplying the electrons. This unlocks a whole other realm of possibility.

With a grid that has a constantly fluctuating rate of marginal emissions—from dirty to clean to dirty and so on—smart devices such as thermostats, electric water heaters, electric vehicles, battery energy storage, etc. can use real-time and predictive signals from a source such as WattTime in order to automatically and effortlessly use cleaner energy and avoid dirtier energy. This effectively multiplies the emissions benefits of Michigan’s new renewable energy and its clean energy target.

Depending on the specific device and how flexible you assume its electricity demand can be, this capability generates a “bonus” emissions reduction of 5–15% or more above and beyond the aforementioned savings achieved by increasing renewable energy on the grid. For example, an electric vehicle recharging overnight has a lot of flexibility to decide specifically when it’s pulling electricity to charge the vehicle and when it wants to “wait” for the grid to get cleaner.

For certain, Michigan’s electricity sector air quality concerns won’t turn around overnight. But this year’s 50% clean energy target agreement and what it means for toxic air pollution and human and environmental impacts means that there’s a good sightline to clearer skies ahead. And here at WattTime, we’re equally excited about the role that flexible demand can play for enabling smart devices to automatically and effortlessly choose cleaner energy, in the process helping Michigan make ever greater progress in its journey toward cleaner air.


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