Michigan, Coal, and the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)

While many in Michigan talk about reducing emissions, new coal plants continue to be proposed for the state. Similarly, Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) could be stronger.


Coal-fired power plants account for 41% of all climate change causing emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In Michigan alone, there are nearly 20 coal-fired power plants. Coal consumption has been linked to the rise in mercury levels in the Great Lakes, and the prevalence of acid rain. This inherently dirty form of energy is also a major contributor to lung cancer due to the pollutants in the air. Michigan should not rely on coal for its energy needs, yet eight coal plants are currently proposing expansion or construction.

The coal industry has been lobbying that “clean coal” is a solution to the dirty coal of the past. This name relates to coal fired carbon capture. “Clean Coal” is a method where carbon-dioxide emissions are caught and then “dripped” into the ground without going into the atmosphere. In face of years of research and billions of dollars in national subsidies, carbon capture technology has yet to be proven. Carbon capture coal plants would take at least a decade to be functional, and many environmentalists and scientists are very skeptical that it is actually effective.

Furthermore, the retrieval of coal for energy consumption has great environmental consequences. Coal mining has long been associated with deep, dark shafts and dirty, hard-working miners. Now, this method of coal mining has been replaced by mountaintop removal mining. The new method involves blowing off the tops of mountains all over West Virginia and Kentucky, exposing the deep sedimentary rocks to the atmosphere. This method has led to devastation of the mountain forest ecology. The waste material left from removing the mountaintops has led to the pollution of many rivers and streams in West Virginia and Kentucky. Many residents that live near the mining sites have experienced extreme pollution of their water tables and massive flooding from rain.

Michigan has recently introduced a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), in attempt to address and alleviate the problems of pollution from electricity production. Michigan’s Governor Jennifer Granholm has passed new portfolio standards through legislature in early 2008. The new law is an attempt to lower the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants created by industry in the state. The portfolio standards set new laws requiring the companies to lower their dependence on fossil fuels and receive a certain amount of energy from renewable resources. Michigan now mandates that 5.5% of its energy is from renewable resources by 2015. The law affects state buildings, which mandate that 10% of their electricity comes from renewable resources by 2015.

Granholm states that the bill will diversify the Michigan economy, strengthen the environment, and create jobs. Opponents of the bill say the new law will increase consumer energy cost and further hurt the Michigan economy. Due to the RPS, businesses that do not lower their electricity usage will be charged up to $600 per month. To many opponents, this means a tax burden that will make the economy suffer. Yet, several environmental groups in the state say the bill is not strong enough. Many feel the penalties are not large enough and the grace periods make compliance almost voluntary.

Electricity from wind power creates no new carbon emissions outside of the resources needed to make and repair the turbines. Wind turbines do not increase the mercury levels in our environment and they do not emit pollutants that lead to lung cancer and asthma. This renewable resource does not need any other constant source of fuel besides the wind, and thus lowers emissions associated with the mining and hauling of coal. Michigan has many prime spots for wind farming. Saginaw Bay and Lake Michigan have shown tremendous potential as they provide a steady flow of wind in many areas that can be used for wind energy. There are high economic costs associated with changing our reliance from fossil fuels to wind for energy. The change would force electric bills up only a few dollars initially, but over time the costs would drop dramatically. New Jersey has just passed legislation to create new wind farms on the Atlantic Ocean and will produce 20% of the city’s energy needs. Michigan could easily follow in these footsteps.

Michigan’s renewable portfolio standard is an attempt to build a strong renewable energy economy. The legislation makes no attempt to stop the building of new coal plants. In order for Michigan to move forward into green energy we need to force companies to do what is right for the citizens. The fines need to be greater, and action must be taken. We do not have time for grace periods. The economic impacts of a stronger bill will be alleviated by job creation in wind energy. Energy consumption is going to grow exponentially, and we need to move fast so this environmental degradation no longer continues.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org