Powerful Forces: An In-Depth Look at How the State Continues to Grow the Clean Energy Economy



Wind turbines in Michigan provide enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes. The state identifies 21 wind farms currently operating or under construction, providing 1,116 megawatts of power. Michigan, in fact, is one of the leading adopters of wind alternative energy with hundreds of turbines clustered on the Thumb and in mid Michigan’s Gratiot County.

In many ways, the county north of Lansing is an unlikely locale for sprawling wind turbine farms. Unlike Michigan’s Thumb, where 12 miles-per-hour and higher coastal winds are among the strongest in the nation, Gratiot County, where winds average in the modest 6-to-7 mph range, is an energy powerhouse as the result of strategic business development planning.

Officials with Greater Gratiot Development Inc., the county’s economic development agency, early on recognized the benefits in adapting to the burgeoning alternative energy market and staked out their territory. They were not alone in harnessing this fast-growing economic engine. While in many ways alternative energy is in its infancy, it already provides a significant share of electricity from likely and unlikely sources.

In the heart of Lansing there are large photo voltaic arrays pumping power into the electric grid. In the region’s two large Granger landfills, methane gas power generators produce 11.2 megawatts of base-load power. On the Michigan State University campus, a large commercial anaerobic digester breaks down animal waste and organic materials, producing gas fuel to make electricity. Small scale experiments use soups of algae to breakdown into ethanol, a substitute for petroleum.

Such is the energy revolution that will shape the 21st Century.

A just-published analysis of alternative energy advances from The Pew Charitable Trust’s clean energy initiative highlighted the economic and evironmental benefits to the state.

“Michigan’s unique portfolio of renewable resources and skilled technical workers positions the state well to keep growing its clean energy economy. Ongoing investment in the state’s strengths of manufacturing, innovation and collaborative research will allow Michigan to capitalize fully on the discovery, deployment and production of clean energy technologies,” stated the report, which was released in October.

It credited Michigan’s 2008 Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act for prompting the state’s utilities to adapt alternative energy sources into their production mix. And it cited the tax incentives the state offers for renewable energy renaissance zones, tax credits and other energy savings incentives for propelling the state to the forefront of clean energy.

“Michigan’s clean energy helps power the state’s economic recovery. Total capital investment in renewable energy from 2009 to 2013 topped $2 billion and is expected to grow in the state to $3.5 billion by 2015. From 2009 to 2013, more than 1 gigawatt of new wind capacity was installed, almost 95 percent of the total clean energy added in those five years. Most new clean generation came from wind, but solar, methane digester and other technologies also grew,” Pew reported.

Like all utilities in the state, the Lansing Board of Water and Light is required by 2015 to produce 10 percent of its total electricity using alternative energy. It boasts a strategic mix of clean energy initiatives: photo voltaic arrays, hydroelectric, fuel cells and power from methane gas produced at Granger landfills. The region’s other electric utility, Consumers, reports that it uses hydroelectric and waste wood to produce most of its renewable power. It includes wind and biomass in its clean energy mix.

BWL, in its most ambitious alternative energy initiative, has contracted for electricity from eight wind turbines operated by Exelon in Gratiot County. The company has 34 turbines spread over 11 square, producing 81.6 megawatts of power and is adding another 21 by year end. This will be BWL’s first wind power agreement. Other utilities in Michigan, notably DTE Energy Co., already powers 50,000 homes from its Gratiot County Wind Project, according to the Pew study.

BWL expects its turbines, each of which cost about $4.5 million, to produce approximately 60,000 megawatts of electricity annually, enough to power about 6,000 homes. It’s just a small share of the 2.2 million megawatt hours the utility needs for its customers each year. But it addresses the alternative energy requirement and helps reduce its power costs, said George Stojic, BWL’s Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Development.

“The wind is strongest in late winter through spring and late in the fall,” Stojic said, which is when natural gas prices tend to be particularly volatile. He said adding wind power to the power generation mix helps hedge against higher energy costs.

Similarly, BWL’s investments in solar power — fields of photovoltaic cells —meshes with its summer power needs. It has an array of 817 solar panels along Cedar Street, opposite its water treatment plant. It also has panels and fuel cells on the roof of its REO Town headquarters. The Cedar Street PV field produces about 158 kilowatts of power, said Stojic. A display adjacent to the array provides real-
time tracking.

BWL recently added panels to Cedar Street solar field with more than double the output of the original 120 watt collectors. These new PV cells reflect two trends: higher output and lower prices. PV panels are now priced low enough to provide off-the-grid power for lighting, communications equipment, highway safety and traffic control, even TVs at tailgates. The solar panels installed by BWL in 2008 were about 6 percent efficient. The more modern panels are closer to 20 percent efficient.

“The cost on our lot averages about $3.25 a watt. I expect the larger solar array to be in the $2.25 range,” Stojic said.

BWL is preparing to add 5,000 kilowatts of solar power to its clean energy mix and has solicited bids for the project. Michigan’s weather makes it one of the worst areas in the country for solar power, but the sun shines when utilities need power the most.

“My need is in the summer,” Stojic said. “Most of our generating resource need is that summer peak. Solar correlates with that.”

Tax credits for wind and solar power helped BWL and other utilities to invest in alternative energies. For the most part, clean energy costs more than dirty, thermal energy. Stojic said BWL was able to use now-expired credits for its wind turbine project, which lowered its costs. Solar projects still are eligible for credits, but they accrue only to private business, which is why BWL is seeking a contractor rather than owning the PV system.

A smaller, though more familiar component in BWL’s alternative energy mix are hydroelectric plants. Its generation station at the Moores River Dam opened in 1908 and continues to produce power today — about 500 kilowatts. Away from Lansing, the utility has an agreement with Tower/Kleber Hydro which operates a northern Michigan hydroelectric unit near Cheboygan. Stojic said there is little incremental cost associated with producing power from the Grand River facility, but that there are capital costs and maintenance.

And finally there is BWL’s agreement with Granger for electricity produced at its two area landfill sites. As trash decomposes, organic material produces methane gas and carbon dioxide. Granger has been pumping methane from its landfill sites since 1985, initially selling the gas to nearby industrial customers and since 1990 producing electricity that it sells to BWL.

Stojic said Granger produces about 79 megawatts of electricity for the utility which it uses to offset its alternative energy mandate.

It is a reliable source of power, said Keith Granger, CEO of the company. Its 335-acre Wood Street landfill site in Lansing and its 180-acre Grand River site in Watertown Twp. are punctuated with wells and lined with pipes to draw gas into its large on-site generators. About half of the landfill gas is burnable methane (the rest is mostly carbon dioxide) and these sites can produce gas for generations.

“The first project, where we put our well in 30 years ago, is still generating meaningful methane today,” Granger said. It was the start of a business for the waste collection and energy production business that now operates in six states with 17 different sites.

If alternative energy initiatives are advancing on a macro scale, advances for small business and residential users is more fragmented. The Patriot Solar Group in Albion designs PV systems for both.

It recently designed a 10 kilowatt, 40-panel system for the Dark Horse Brewery in Marshall that will offset about 10 percent of its electric usage, said Patriot spokesman Eric Potts. Each panel produces about 250 watts of electricity.

It used similar panels for an underground house in Bath, where in June it installed an 8 kilowatt, 60 cell array. Potts estimated the cost of the project at between $16,000 and $17,000.

The company said the homeowner entered into a 15-year power purchase agreement with Consumers Energy’s Experimental Advanced Renewable Program. “This is what makes these systems work,” Potts said. “Utilities guarantee a higher rate for the power they buy — two to two-and-a half times more.”

Consumers Energy, the utility serving Bath, pays between 52.5 to 65 cents per kilowatt hour for clean energy it buys from residential customers.

Potts acknowledged that Michigan can be a tough sell for solar energy systems.

“We average only four and a half hours of sunlight a day. But that’s no worse than Germany. They are one of the world leaders.”

Harnessing the Power of the Wind

To stand near one of Exelon’s wind turbines is to feel the power. They are simultaneously simple — they are, after all, windmills — and engineering marvels.

The size alone is breathtaking. Each tower is 299 feet tall, about the size of the Boji Tower in downtown Lansing. The blade tip height tops out at 491 feet. And this is what you see from the outside.

The heart of the turbine is a 2.4 megawatt Winergy Generator that over the course of a year will produce an estimated 155,000 Megawatt hours of electricity. Power from Exelon turbines is routed through 24 miles of cabling where it is tied into a transmission network that sends power to BWL and other state utilities.

A completed turbine weighs 760,000 pounds and sits on a foundation formed from 480 cubic feet of concrete and 40 tons of rebar.

Each of the three blades is 192 feet long and weighs 22,000 pounds. When attached to the tower they sweep an area equal to 2.7 acres. And what looks graceful from a distance is dizzingly fast up close; the tip of the blade travels at speeds up to 202 miles per hour.

The turbines are a manufacturing hybrid, according to Exelon. Some components are built in Arkansas. The blades are produced in Germany; the towers in Indonesia. Both are brought into the Muskegon Port on four 454-foot cargo ships.

Exelon is the largest owner-operator of wind farms in Michigan, and operates 34 turbines in the Gratiot County Wind Project and will add another 21 by the end of the year. The company has 187 turbines in the state, able to generate 535.6 megawatts of power.

The Pew report lauded the state’s approach to energy noting, that “Michigan’s wind capacity is among the fastest growing in the nation. In 2010, the state’s Public Service Commission identified wind energy resource zones — areas most viable for commercial energy generation — as mandated by the state’s 2008 Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act. This designation streamlines development of wind energy projects and has been a significant factor in the industry’s growth. With 1.2 GW of installed wind capacity, Michigan ranks 16th nationwide in wind energy capacity. The commission estimates the state will top 1.4 GW by the end of 2014.”

The efficiency of turbines like those planned for BWL has improved dramatically, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

“Research efforts have helped to increase the average capacity factor (a measure of power plant productivity) from 22 percent for wind turbines installed before 1998 to 32 percent for turbines installed between 2006 and 2013.”

It added that the economics also are favorable. “Wind energy costs have been reduced from over 55 cents (current dollars) per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 1980 to under 2.5 cents/kWh in some regions of the country today.”

MSU: A World Leader in Alternative Energy
Through its specialized colleges and research initiatives, Michigan State University (MSU) has established itself as a world leader in the alternative energy field.

Along with the University of Wisconsin, it has received a five year, $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to sustain the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. The project is but a part of the tens of millions of dollars in multi-disciplined alternative energy research at MSU, said distinguished professor of physics and astronomy Wolfgang Bauer, who is consulting with the university’s executive vice president for administration on clean energy.

The GLBRC research into biofuels from plant materials and related projects meshes with MSU’s core agricultural and engineering expertise. Bauer cited research on wind turbine design, methane production from plant materials and transparent solar collectors as high-profile examples of the university’s diverse alternative energy initiatives.

Among the more prominent projects highlighted by MSU are:

Researchers are developing new highly-efficient thermoelectric materials based on natural mineral tetrahedrites that have the potential to convert waste heat into electricity, perhaps even from a home furnace.

The university has built a 450,000 commercial-sized anaerobic digester that produces enough methane to produce 1.7 million kilowatts of electricity. The process converts animal waste and organic materials and produces fertilizer in addition to fuel.

For Biomass, a key to unlocking the energy potential in plant materials is pretreatments processes developed at MSU. These accelerate the breakdown of plant cellulose by a factor of five, speeding the process that ultimately converts ethanol into biofuel.

Researchers have engineered a plant that stores lipids in its leaves to enhance biofuel outputs. The key was using an algal gene involved in oil production to alter the plants.

Using transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), MSU researchers have created clear sheets of thin material that capture a small slice of sunlight to produce electricity.

Granger is Major Player in Renewable Energy

Talk with Keith Granger and you’ll never think of trash in quite the same way.

Food scraps, plywood, cigarette butts, a ripped cotton t-shirt. Garbage? Not necessarily.

“We are collecting tomorrow’s energy. What you put at the curb comes to our landfill and will create methane,” said Granger, CEO of his family-owned waste collection and energy
production business.

From its 335-acre Wood Street landfill site in Lansing and 180-acre Grand River site in Watertown Twp., the company extracts enough gas from decomposing trash to power thousands of homes each day. It’s an alternative energy supplier of electricity to the Lansing Board of Water and Light, contributing to the utility’s goal of 10 percent clean energy by 2015.

Granger has a power-purchase agreement with BWL that differs from others who supply electric alternative energy from sources like wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays. Its landfills produce methane gas at a constant rate which allows the generators at both Granger sites to operate continually. Power produced from turbines or PV cells depend on wind and sun, neither of which is reliable.

“For utilities, we are considered base-load power,” Granger said. It means that BWL can factor 11.2 megawatts of Granger power into its output model, reducing its reliance on coal and natural gas. Granger called the methane generated electricity from his company’s sites a significant source of power.

The gas produced in landfill sites is 50 percent methane, 45 percent carbon dioxide and trace amounts of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and other organic compounds. It comes from the decomposition of organic materials, some of which happens quickly. According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, paper can break down in two-to-four weeks, a banana peel in three-to-five weeks; a disposable diaper can take up to 20 years.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming when released into the atmosphere. At its Lansing-area sites, Granger said it taps virtually all of the methane available from its acreage to feed its generators.

But there is another use for methane from landfill sites — a natural gas substitute for businesses located nearby. Methane from landfills has an approximate BTU value of 500 compared with natural gas, with a BTU value of 1,030, or propane which is 2,500. A kilowatt hour of electricity has 3,414 BTUs.

Yet despite its lower thermal value, landfill gas is suitable for many applications. Granger, which operates 17 landfills in six states, provides methane to nine industrial users, among them: Tyson Foods in Morgantown, Pa; Nova Chemicals, in Painesville, Ohio; Dart, in Narvon, Pa; and Rolls-Royce, in Indianapolis, Ind.

Altogether, its direct gas fields produce 14,200 standard cubic feet per minute each day, which Granger prices to reflect the markets it serves. “We recognize who we compete against. For natural gas, it’s the cost of the commodity,” Granger said. “We run the numbers and see what makes the most sense, what’s
most viable.”

The company’s electricity generating facilities are heavily concentrated in Michigan. Besides the two Lansing area sites, it works with landfill operators in Montrose, Grand Blanc, Watervleit, Coopersville, Byron Center and Pinconning. Altogether, Granger’s 13 methane-fueled power plants produce 55 megawatts of power daily. When combined with the potential power output from its direct-use landfill sites, Granger said the equivalent total output is equal to BWL’s new 100 megawatt REO Town natural gas generation station.

The company developed its energy subsidiaries as an offshoot of its waste collection business, which started in 1966 hauling trash for construction companies and other commercial businesses. It has evolved into what Granger describes as a “comprehensive environmental management service company” providing sustainable waste collection, disposal, recycling and renewable
energy production.

It ventured into the landfill business in 1973 and in 1985 began capturing methane. “It was the first project in the state of Michigan and the first east of the Mississippi,” Granger said. “We put a well system into a closed landfill and piped the gas to Motor Wheel.”

In 1990, Granger began producing electricity using methane from its Grand River landfill. Two years later it was generating electricity at the Lansing landfill and soon expanded into other markets.

“All the material that we collect and bring to our landfills is managed in a way so that we can efficiently capture the methane off garbage that is decomposing,” Granger explained. “Depending on the type of waste, it can start generating methane within a few months.”

At its Lansing-area facilities, Granger collects between 1 million and 1.5 million cubic yards of waste each year. The sites are laced with an infrastructure of pipes, tied into a network of vertical and horizontal wells. Vacuum pumps pull gas trapped in the soil into the well lines. “We’re capturing the majority of the gas,” Granger said.

As the company expands its landfill sites, it first installs its well infrastructure and deposits the trash in ways to maximize methane collection. Granger trucks now use GPS navigation systems to determine the location of well heads. “As we actually put trash in place we have wells right there so that as soon as it (trash) decomposes, as soon as it’s generating gas, we are collecting it,” Granger said.

The company’s first methane collecting wells, now 30 years old, still generate commercial quantities of gas. “When we look at a decent size facility with a decent future incoming stream of waste, a landfill like Wood Street can have a life of 50 years. And the gas will keep going for another 30 years beyond that,” Granger said.

The EPA finds that Michigan is among the nation’s leaders in methane capture. In California, 74 landfill sites harvest methane for alternative energy uses. Pennsylvania, with 43 sites, is next, followed by Michigan with 42.

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