Region’s Energy: Questions Go Beyond Windmills and Solar Debate

There are voices screaming that an energy shortage in our region and in Michigan is inevitable. These voices come from people in the energy business; from small business owners highly dependent on reliable power; from environmental groups; and from business groups like the Chamber. Yes "while Rome burns," as they say, we as a region and as energy consumers continue to fiddle.

Commissioners recently passed a resolution endorsing the construction and deployment of windmills in Manistee County. Benzie County commissioners are bracing for a contentious debate as the organizers of the resolution have requested the same support there. The debate isn't where to build or how many; it is over whether or not to support any use of windmills to create energy in those counties.

The Michigan Land Use Institute and others are pressing Traverse City Light & Power to implement a solar project that would pave the way for projects on a significant scale using a creative approach to funding. This initiative has been met with skepticism and a lack of support, in part, because of how it would be funded, but also because it is not understood how solar could be viable in our climate.

Two major biomass plants have been proposed in Kalkaska and Grand Traverse County in the past three years, and both have been successfully shouted down by a relatively small but vocal opposition. Each plant had some private and public backing, but in the end, the public would not enable them to move forward.

The Presque Isle Power Company, a coal plant that provides electricity for Marquette County, including the largest iron ore mines in the country, must close by 2017. It pays more than $5 million in taxes to Marquette County. It powers a mining economy with a $1 billion local impact that employs 17 percent of the Upper Peninsula workforce. The mines pay more than $420 million in taxes a year to the state. They also impact Great Lakes shipping and steel production in Detroit.

The point is this: We need all the energy we can make, from whatever source. Seventy percent of our base-load energy today is powered by coal. But because of issues related to emissions from burning coal, older power plants are being decommissioned. As an economy, we are consuming nearly all of the energy available. And we're in a recession. When the national and statewide economy begins to recover, we will be faced with something that previous post-recession economies were not: a lack of sufficient energy to power the recovery.

Exactly when the region most needs to come to terms on an energy policy that includes regional generation of power, the conversation is mired in philosophical banner waving. Clean coal? "No coal, anywhere!" Natural gas? "Don't frack with our water!" Windmills? "Don't destroy our views or kill our wildlife!" Solar? "Too expensive – don't you know it snows here?" Biomass? "Save our forests! Burn nothing!"

As a state and region that relies on energy from other places, we must begin now to develop a broad strategy to address energy needs from multiple sources in the next 10 to 20 years.

Conservation is a great first step, but when energy supply runs low, prices will run high, and the areas where that energy is produced will have first dibs. This is not only a regional imperative, it is an unprecedented regional economic opportunity to be seized and employed. The Chamber's energy policy calls for it to be a "change agent" regarding energy issues, and this will be a high priority for the organization in 2012.