Billion-dollar baby steps – now THIS is how to transition to green energy


A handful of good clichés can get you through life. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Don’t eat yellow snow.

Here’s another interesting one – learn to walk before you run. On the surface, it’s kind of dumb when applied to the audience it appears to be intended for – there is no point in quoting it to anyone learning to walk.

It is brilliant though in the right circumstance, because it is often resoundingly ignored by adults. As a case in point, consider renewable energy. development

There is a tidal wave of interest in installing wind and solar installations for a number of reasons: both have become cheap, there are often government incentives, and it is doing the right thing – lessening the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.

That reasoning and strategy works perfectly well, in isolation, if one simply does the economic analysis of how much power a new wind/solar installation can generate, how much revenue that will generate, and how much it will cost to put it in. As a purely self-interested project, it’s fairly straightforward, and those who do these things often jump on the “fossil fuels are dead” bandwagon, because they’re proving it as they speak.

On the other hand, from the perspective of those who have to actually manage the power grid, these projects in sum create a running-before-walking problem of sizeable proportions. The grid, its operators, and ultimately its users are not ready yet for that much wind and solar. The problems are widely understood; the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Even when those conditions exist, there is no guarantee they will happen when power demand peaks. Therefore, adding more and more wind/solar installations before the grid can handle them can create nothing but problems. The most advanced renewable power jurisdictions like California and Germany regularly see negative-priced power – that is, power producers are charged for producing power – when wind and solar really get cranked up. Of course, wind and solar power gets beneficial treatment, usually, so they don’t mind, but for the established players it is pretty freaking annoying.

A recent development in Michigan however shows the way that the whole sequence should unfold.  A company called DTE Energy is installing a new billion-dollar natural gas fired power plant. This is, sharp-eyed readers will no doubt notice, yet another fossil fuel installation that activists have vowed to halt.

But wiser heads will look at the situation a little closer. DTE Energy is actually vigorously pursuing renewable energy including wind and solar, and intends to reduce CO2 emissions levels by 40 percent from 2010 to 2030.

The natural gas-fired power plant DTE is installing is replacing 3 coal-fired power plants, and it will emit 70 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. DTE recognizes however that it is absolutely critical to ensure power is available when wind/solar can’t contribute, and therefore this natural gas plant is a complete necessity.

This is how we will transition to a greener energy future, in steps. Some of these steps will require the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, it simply can’t be avoided. The alternative would be to shut down the coal plants and rely on wind and solar, which would require Michiganders to adopt an extremely peculiar lifestyle of frantic activity on windy, sunny days, moderate activity on windy cloudy days or sunny calm days, and total Amish-like rest when neither is happening. On balance, I’d say it’s way easier to build the natural gas power plant than convince the state to go that route. But that’s just me.




  1. Kim Davies says:

    Terry, I have just about always found your articles well thought out but you missed that boat on this one, to quote another cliche. Natural gas plants are a good idea, just skip the wind and solar parts in most cases, and it will work well. You only have to look at areas using extensive wind and solar (Germany, California, Australia, Denmark) to see the ever increasing power prices.

    To use your adage, you need to walk before you run. This ramping peaking plants up and down is expensive business and there is all the new grid that needs to be built for wind and solar.


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