PWIR: Cheaper Wind, Costlier Coal

A weekly update on environmental policy happenings from Ryan Werder, Political Director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (Twitter: @rjwerder)

Two things stand out in this week’s political review: Wind is cheaper than expected and getting cheaper but coal, on the other hand, is more expensive than ever.

Consumers Energy lowered how much you are charged for wind energy by almost 75% due to the lower-than-expected cost of wind energy, which is great. The attack on the EPA’s mercury rules, however, reminds us of the health care and premature death costs due to burning coal. It’s another reminder of the chasm between the benefits of clean energy and the real hazards of dirty coal.

In this week’s Political Week In Review:

Utilities Find Wind is Cheaper than Expected

Utilities are on track to meet the 2008 renewable energy standard of 10% by 2015, according to a new report by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC). The really cool news, though, is that this official and non-partisan Commission found that it is much cheaper to build and purchase renewable energy than they had originally forecast.

We know that reports on energy usage aren’t as thrilling as the Red Wings’ home-game win streak (or maybe, to some on this email list, they are), but the numbers in here really are exciting. For example, in 2011, $78.6 million was invested in renewable energy in Michigan. Another fun fact: With wind energy coming in cheaper than anticipated, Consumers Energy dropped its renewable energy surcharge from $2.50 to 65 cents, saving their customers $22 a year, on average.

As I’ve said before, the common sense economics of clean energy will continue to win out as it becomes more prevalent in Michigan. Gamesa, a Spanish company which produces wind turbines in the US, announced recently that it is going to build some of that renewable energy capacity in the Upper Peninsula. Gamesa is constructing a 28 mW wind farm in Garden Township, southwest of Manistique. Gamesa, you may remember, is also negotiating another contract to construct a Muskegon County wind farm. The outcome of all this investment in Michigan? Jobs for Michigan workers, savings for Michigan ratepayers. I love this kind of news.

With your vote in November, you can ensure that this kind of news is only the prologue to a new chapter in Michigan’s recovery. Construction, manufacturing, servicing, and maintenance jobs for renewable energy projects like the Garden Wind Farm will increase dramatically if Michigan residents vote the proposed 25% by 2025 Renewable Energy Standard (RES) into the Michigan Constitution in November. The RES builds upon the 2008 measure, and will put us ahead of neighboring states like Minnesota, Illinois, and Ohio that are outpacing us right now.

Help your friends stay as informed as you are on these energy issues; send them to our new Facebook page to sign up for updates like the PWIR.

EPA Coal Rules Published

The EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule was published this week, which literally means you can begin to breathe easier. This important step by the EPA will push coal plants to reduce the amount of mercury, arsenic, and lead pollution that they eject into the air we breathe.

In Michigan, this rule means reducing premature deaths and billions in extra health care costs.

Last June, the Michigan Environmental Council released a report that links 160 premature deaths to pollution from Michigan’s nine oldest coal plants; deaths this new standard could have helped prevent. As in all things, there is an economic argument here, too. The health care costs due to Michigan coal plant emissions were $1.5 billion in Michigan, an intolerable expense for a state that is just beginning to emerge from our decade-long depression.

Once these additional health care costs are factored into the price of producing electricity by burning coal — coupled by the fact that Michigan must import every ounce of coal we burn here — it’s clear that coal is not only outdated and dirty, but genuinely dangerous to our economy and our health.

It’s Official: Our Trees are the Right Height!

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have been touring Michigan and making their pitches for the Republican Presidential nominations. Rick Santrorum is currently leading in the polls, which is a pretty shocking development given Romney’s roots in the state. Fortunately, Grand Rapids reporter Nate Reens got Mitt Romney to talk about a subject that has largely been ignored in this election: The Great Lakes.

Perhaps Romney was looking forward to the opportunity to talk about them, because he had really… special… answers all ready to go on the subjects of water diversion and Asian carp. On water diversion, he said that the federal government should not interfere and that Michigan should be free to sell our water if we would like. On Asian carp, he criticized President Obama for not acting but failed to say what he would do to stop them. (This answer can only be explained by a giant oversight from his campaign in neglecting to hand him the Political Week in Review from two weeks ago).

Romney, who was endorsed by Gov. Snyder this week, did elaborate on his love for Michigan’s natural resources, though. He received national and comedic attention for saying that in Michigan, “the trees are the right height.”

Continuing Romney’s bad luck, even this very bland statement is not without controversy. The state’s Living Legacies Program, which identifies, protects, and preserves unique ecosystems in Michigan, has been under fire from logging interests and was recently the subject of a state senate committee hearing led by Sen. Thomas Casperson (R – Escanaba), who owns a timber trucking company. Timber companies are worried that the program will not allow them to cut as many trees as they would like to, as Jeff Alexander pointed out in this excellent Bridge article. The Living Legacy Program allows Michigan timber products to be sold in markets that require sustainable harvest designation.

You can bet that Michigan LCV will be paying close attention to this issue. After all, we’ve been working to keep Michigan trees "the right height" since 1999: Tall.

Federal Transportation Bill Threatens Public Transit

The proposed “American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Financing Act," the federal transportation bill, would eliminate funding for mass transit programs across the country. Instead, it would replace that crucial long-term funding with a one-time check. They say they will reexamine it each year, however those are hardly encouraging words coming out of a deadlocked Congress.

This means that local, county, and regional mass transit programs would be unable to adequately plan for the future. As if that isn’t enough, the bill would also open up previously closed offshore drilling sites and even drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Then, for good measure, it also eliminates funding for bike lanes and green spaces.

The Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, a former Republican Congressman from Illinois, calls this the "worst transportation bill" he has ever seen. Our national sister organization is tracking this closely; check out some of their other action items.

In other news..

Our friends at Michigan Environmental Council launched their new Michigan Distilled blog today. We’re excited to read the informative insights from the MEC staff, and I’m sure we’ll be linking some of their material right here in the PWIR. Check it out when you can!

Until Next Week,

Ryan Werder

Political Director, Michigan League of Conservation Voters

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