Environment Picture

Q&A with governor's new energy chief

Stanley “Skip” Pruss recently left his post as a deputy director with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to serve as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s special advisor on renewable energy and the environment.
        In that post he juggles work on renewables (75% of his time) and that of recently departed senior policy advisor Dana Debel (25%).
        As this issue of the Michigan Environmental Report went to press, Pruss was trying to hammer out details of a longterm state renewable energy plan that brings together an expansive cross section of state agencies, including the departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, Agriculture, and Labor and Economic Growth as well as the Public Service Commission, NextEnergy and others.
        “The governor is passionate on this subject, and that’s why I’m in this job,” Pruss said. “It’s a key component of her comprehensive economic plan that includes making health care affordable and accessible, doubling the number of college graduates in the state and revitalizing our urban areas.” Pruss agreed to answer a few questions from Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.  about where all this is headed.

Talk to me about the plan you’re working on. What is it, and when will it be done?
We’ve assembled a team to work on a renewable energy plan for Michigan. It’s comprised of people, expert staff in this area from the Public Service Commission, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the Department of Labor and Economic Growth, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Agriculture and NextEnergy. And what we’re trying to do is develop a plan that will move Michigan in front of other states in the country to be a leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Where does Michigan currently stack up against other states in terms of renewable energy?
I think we’re doing pretty well in some areas and not so well in certain other areas. With regard to the development of biofuels, we’re doing really well. We had one ethanol plant in operation five years ago; we have four in operation today. There are limitations that I think are pretty obvious on the development of corn-based ethanol, yet there’s opportunity for further innovation, specifically in terms of making the process more efficient, utilizing less water and importantly, creating new products from any waste streams or byproducts. We’re also doing well in the development of cellulosic ethanol. It looks like Michigan may have one of the first commercial cellulosic plants in the country. Michigan has great assets—we have intellectual capital—our university and college system will have a critical role in Michigan’s renewable energy future. We are going to develop a new paradigm for locating businesses and research and development in Michigan. As Governor Granholm has indicated, we are working with Sweden in terms of innovative, state-of-the-art biofuels development opportunities that we want to bring to Michigan. What we want to do is anchor these companies and bring in other companies that will be able to work with them and utilize the byproducts or waste materials from the anchor companies, and this is the key part, co-locate research and development faculty from MSU, Michigan Technological University and U of M and other colleges and universities as appropriate, as well as graduate students so that R&D can be conducted in real time on these waste streams, developing products and new opportunities in the most environmentally benign way.

Talk about renewable energy in terms of electricity generation?
OK, well, this is an area where we’re not doing so well. In the United States, there’s currently 14,000 megawatts of capacity from wind turbines, and we have three megawatts. By that measure clearly we’re not doing well. That will change quickly under Governor Granholm’s plan. There is tremendous opportunity. But in order to really move on wind power, our effort has to be enabled by enactment of a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). We have a lot of good people working very hard to make that happen. We are reasonably confident that we will have an RPS by the end of this year. And we’ll have that standard generate investment in wind-to-energy in a very serious way in Michigan. Now, we have our first commercialized wind farm, the Harvest Wind Park in the Pigeon area. I was out to that farm. Very exciting. One of the things we did that was very successful, in conjunction with MSU and NextEnergy Corporation, was to put on a wind energy conference in Michigan that was incredibly successful (see related story on page 20). That was less a conference than a job fair, where we matched up five of the OEM’s big multinational wind companies…with Michigan manufacturers. There were in the neighborhood of 50 facilitated meetings between companies who have the capability of building wind power components who were hungry to find Michigan manufacturers who can build the parts.

Do you expect a rough time getting buy-in from legislators on renewable energy and on the energy efficiency stuff?
That is very challenging, but again it is an area where there are a lot of good people working very hard. We have three bipartisan subcommittees, which is a real cause for optimism. I think we’ll get buy-in from the regulated community at the end of the day because an RPS is such a driver for job creation.

There are a number of bills floating around. What would you like to see in terms of percentage and deadline?
You heard the Governor say in her State of the State Address earlier this year that she will ask this legislature to set ambitious goals for our state, so that within eight years, a minimum of 10% of our energy will come from renewable sources. And we will double that goal in the decade after that. Now in terms of an immediate timeline, we want the most aggressive RPS we can get. Now 29 states have an RPS—28 states and the District of Columbia. Seven months ago, maybe eight months ago, there were only 22. Of those 29, I believe three are voluntary. In those eight months, seven more states have adopted an RPS, and in those eight months, eight of the states that already had existing standards upped them. The experience of the 29 states that have an RPS is that they are raising their standards, not lowering them.

Utilities have said and many people believe renewable energy will cost far more than traditional coal. Is that right?
 Well, I think it’s critically important to compare apples to apples. From what I know and what I understand and after spending a lot of time in this area, when one looks at the cost of new (electricity) generation, one has to compare the cost of new generation to new generation. If you compare new wind, for instance, to existing coal, wind would be decidedly more expensive. However, if you compare new wind energy to new coal energy, you come out in an entirely different place. I would suggest to you that the wind may cost less than building a new coal plant. And that is before the cost of any carbon controls that we know and expect, and that’s not just state government. I think the industry expects very serious carbon constraints taking the form of a carbon tax, cap-and-trade system or additional controls or a blend of carbon controls. That will drive up the cost of coal-based or petroleum-based or natural gas based power production.

The cheapest form of power is…?
Energy efficiency.

 That sounds boring.
The kilowatt hour that goes unused is by far the cheapest kilowatt hour. There is, again, great opportunity for energy efficiency in this state. Where Michigan was doing well in the early 1990s, the energy management programs were terminated, and now we’re not doing so well. California’s had energy efficiency in place for a while now, and the average person in California uses 30% less energy than the average person in Michigan. You’re paying more for the compact fluorescent light bulb that you’re changing out for the cheaper incandescent light bulb. But over time in regard to less energy use and longer life, in the CFL light bulb example, you save lots of money. Not only are you saving lots of money, you’re burning less coal, creating less pollution and generating less carbon dioxide. For every $1.60 spent on energy efficiency, one gets—whether it’s residential, commercial or industrial—savings in the neighborhood of $7.

And what about the state’s holiday tree this year?
The holiday tree! We’re trying to get there. The LED bulbs use a fraction of the energy of traditional bulbs. The current cost to electrify the tree for 45 days is in the neighborhood of $2,200. The LEDs will cost $200. The additional cost of LEDs is that instead of disposing of the entire tree, lights and all, we have to remove the LEDs. They’re expensive, so we have to reuse them the following year. While we’re transitioning, we expect that the bottom of the tree will be lighted with LEDs this year. A hybrid.

Is this whole issue a jobs-versus-the economy tradeoff?
I think those who are really informed on this issue know that this is not jobs-versus-economy—this is all linked. We can create good jobs using our skilled labor to manufacture wind towers and blades and turbine components and develop biofuels. Renewable energy is a great opportunity for Michigan.

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