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A Michigan Utility Tried To Hide Its Coal Plant Behind A Wind Farm

By Emily Atkin  

"A Michigan Utility Tried To Hide Its Coal Plant Behind A Wind Farm"

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A coal holding field is seen at the Karn-Weadock electric power plant in Bay City, Mich.

A coal holding field is seen at the Karn-Weadock electric power plant in Bay City, Mich.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

It may have come as a surprise this morning when conservative news aggregation website the Drudge Report tweeted that new greenhouse gas emissions regulations recently set by the Environmental Protection Agency have effectively forced a power cooperative to abandon its plans to build a clean energy project in Rogers City, Michigan.

Indeed, the Michigan-based Wolverine Power Cooperative on Tuesday announced that, after nearly 8 years and $25 million spent, the company will walk away from its proposed Wolverine Clean Energy Venture. Though the project has faced a number of regulatory hurdles, environmental challenges, and economic skepticism over the years, Wolverine CEO Eric Baker said that new greenhouse gas rules from the EPA ultimately “render the project impossible to build.”

The main rules Baker is speaking of are updated draft regulations setting a limit on the amount of carbon dioxide that new power plants can emit, which EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has called the “first uniform national limits on carbon pollution for new plants.”

The twist, however, is that the company’s “Clean Energy Venture” was in actuality two coal-fired base load power plants that would have altogether had capacity of 600 megawatts, and no proposed method of capturing or storing the carbon. With no method of storing these emissions, it would certainly make it hard for the company to build a new coal-fired plant. Under the proposed rules, coal plants either have to emit only 1,100 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour over one year, or the plant can take 7 years to get average emissions down to 1,050 pounds per megawatt hour.

The reason that Wolverine was able to deem the project “clean” was likely the fact that a 35-turbines wind turbine farm was also lumped in with the coal plants. That part of the proposal, however, was “seldom talked about” and lacking in essential data.

And even with the wind farm, according to Wolverine’s air permits, the project in its entirety would have added 995 tons of particulate pollution, 1,344 tons of SO2 pollution, and 2,647 tons of NOx pollution annually.

Wolverine had also proposed releasing 46.8 pounds of mercury pollution, 700 pounds of lead, and more than 6 million tons of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), which opposed the project.

“The wind farm originally may have been an attempt to make this overall project look cleaner than it was,” Andrew Armstrong, an attorney at the ELPC, told ThinkProgress on Wednesday. “But it’s possible that, even though the coal plant is dead, the wind farm may proceed.”

Now that Wolverine’s project is dead, Armstrong said, Michigan-based company Swan Bay Wind LLC may be able to move forward with its plans to build a 42-turbine, 140 megawatt wind farm on that same land. If approved, Swan Bay told The Alpena News that it would need “a considerable amount of temporary workers” to build it, and six permanent workers for the 25-year lifespan of the turbines — not as many as the 100 permanent jobs the coal plant would have created, but still a boost for the area’s economy.

But still, the Michigan Public Service Commission in 2010 expressed doubt that the new coal plants proposed by Wolverine would be needed — even going so far as to say the plants would result in an estimated rate increase of $76.95 per month for the average residential customer.

Commercial wind energy production, on the other hand, has grown in the last decade, with Michigan Public Services Commission data updated this month showing total operational wind capacity at 1,161 megawatts and 676 turbines. Though Rogers City isn’t located in one of the Primary Wind Energy Zones where there are a lot of wind turbines, it is right on the coast of Lake Huron, which Wolverine itself had called “one of the best wind sites in Michigan.”

“I think Wolverine is doing the right thing by its customers by cancelling the coal project, ” Armstrong said. “Its kind of funny because this totally encapsulates what’s going on now. You cannot build a new coal plant. But wind is economically viable.”

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