MIDLAND, Mich. — In the midst of the blackouts ravaging Texas and nearby states, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has sent a letter to Michigan lawmakers with recommendations to ensure that our state does not suffer the same fate. One solution is to adopt a reliable energy standard that requires any new electricity generation source to be fully dispatchable.
Michigan’s energy systems have been strained in the past. As the state was dealing with extreme cold during the 2019 Polar Vortex, a major source of our natural gas supply failed, while wind and solar supplied miniscule amounts to the energy grid. The state was fortunate that there was a substantial supply of nuclear- and coal-based power to supply essential energy for heating. The biggest inconvenience was a recommendation to keep home thermostat levels at 65° or lower.
Unlike Michigan, Texas and other states that are dealing with similar circumstances — like Kansas and Oklahoma — are further along in their transition to a heavy reliance on renewable energy systems.
As the Mackinac Center noted in its recently released study, Electricity in Michigan: A Primer, a mix of coal, natural gas and nuclear provided almost 90% of the state’s electricity in 2018, while wind and solar combined provided less than 5%. This will likely soon change, due to mandates by lawmakers and major public utilities to expand renewable energy sources. Both of Michigan’s major utilities — Consumers Energy and DTE — have already announced their plans to replace existing utilities with less reliable solar and wind.
“Michigan needs to be cautious in its energy endeavors,” said Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center. “As Michigan’s utilities switch to a heavier reliance on fickle energy sources, lawmakers should adopt a new reliable energy standard that requires any new electricity generation source to be fully dispatchable. Michigan residents should not have to depend on whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing in order to have reliable electricity.”
More complete information on the Texas electricity grid is coming out, and the failures and rolling blackouts seem to stem from three major issues. First, there was poor planning and slow responses on the part of ERCOT, the operator of Texas’ electricity grid. Second, decisions were made against winterizing essential generation equipment, despite similar cold-related outages in 2011. Third, extreme and unusual cold weather impacted multiple generation sources: wind, solar, nuclear, coal and natural gas.
While this new information changes the immediate reporting of the energy crisis, it does not change the long-term systemic impacts of the changes that are being made in Texas, Michigan and across the nation. For more than a decade, Texas regulators have deliberately designed an electrical system that prioritizes the construction of renewable energy over the management, maintenance and construction of more reliable energy sources.
Even wind energy defenders are publicly claiming that wind generation is “reliably unreliable,” meaning the system managers at ERCOT didn’t even expect wind to be operating during the cold temperatures. Wind energy was every bit as reliably unreliable in the Midwest during the January 2019 Polar Vortex event, when it dropped to essentially no production during the extreme cold.
“Reliably unreliable” may work in mathematical models or when it’s sunny and 75°, but it is potentially dangerous when the real world gives us cloudy and -20°. It’s also a poor argument in favor of the drive to build more renewables. Spending billions to build energy sources that cannot be depended on when people need them most is irresponsible.
Unfortunately, Michigan’s utilities are following the same path Texas has already trod. They routinely say they are building a diverse and trustworthy system. But their plans will remove coal and reduce nuclear generation, while almost solely focusing on building more wind, solar and natural gas. Yet as renewable advocates are now admitting, we can’t count on wind and solar when we may need them most. This means Michigan’s diverse electrical grid will rely disproportionately on gas during extreme weather. The fire at the Ray Compressor Station in 2019 demonstrates that this is not a solid plan.
For the good of Michigan residents, Michigan’s electricity utilities need to return their focus to safe, reliable generation options.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit research and educational institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for a free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.
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