Engaging Michigan agriculture in producing renewable energy

Proposed legislation would increase the renewable energy requirement in Michigan to 22 percent by 2022. How can Michigan agriculture become more engaged in reaching this goal?

Michigan is one of 31 states plus the District of Columbia that have some form of renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The RPS requires a certain percentage of a utility’s power generation to come from renewable or alternative energy sources by a given date. P.A. 295, which became law in 2008, set Michigan’s RPS goal at 10 percent by 2015. According to a 2012 report from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), Michigan’s electric providers are on track to meet the 10 percent renewable energy requirement. The report states that the RPS has resulted in the development of new renewable capacity and can be credited with the development of over 1,000 MW of new renewable energy projects becoming commercially operational since the Act became law.

In another report released in 2012, the MPSC reported that electric utilities collectively exceeded their energy savings targets by amounts ranging from 16 percent to 49 percent in each of the years 2009, 2010 and 2011. In fact, the 2011 savings exceeded the 2012 savings target. This report noted that the actual cost of renewable energy continues to fall, down 50 percent from the first contracts, and is less expensive than the cost of any new fossil fuel generation plant. The report concludes that the cost of renewable energy will continue to decline, and the benefits from energy savings and emission reductions from offset generation will continue to increase.

The report also found that renewable energy investments are boosting local economies, with $1.79 billion already having been invested through 2012 to bring new renewable energy projects online. Michigan’s clean energy sector currently supports 20,500 jobs and $5 billion a year in economic activity. Similarly in Illinois, where a 25 percent renewable energy standard by 2025 has been adopted, the Illinois Power Agency reported its renewable energy standard has sparked “significant job creation” and “dramatically” lowered regional power prices, saving Illinois consumers $176 million in 2011 alone.

With the exception of acting as host sites for wind farms, the Michigan crop and animal agriculture industry has been a small player in meeting the 10 percent renewable energy requirement and reaching the energy savings targets. Recent legislation has been proposed to increase the percent renewable energy requirement to 22 by 2022. This proposed legislation begs the question - how does Michigan agriculture become more engaged in reaching this goal? Consider the following ideas:

Utilize the Michigan waste biomass inventory to support renewable energy. The Michigan Waste Biomass Inventory to Support Renewable Energy online tool identifies sites of residual biomass and land that can produce high energy value biomass, estimates the net energy theoretically available from the biomass, and identifies constraints that limit the utility of biomass conversion technologies. Agriculture can use this tool to bring farmers and investors together in projects with the greatest potential for success in creating renewable energy, profit and jobs. New anaerobic digestion technologies exist to process high solid manures, stovers and non-food energy crops, significantly expanding the potential megawatts produced from Michigan agriculture.

Have an agricultural renewable energy champion. Encourage existing agricultural project owners, agricultural commodity groups, and farm organizations to step up and champion renewable energy from agricultural crops, residues and waste products – perhaps revitalizing the AgriEnergy Committee. They can best provide leadership and vision, and ensure that agriculture is at the table and a contributing voice in State renewable energy discussions. This will ensure that agricultural energy projects receive parity consideration to other renewable projects, and that the full slate of environmental benefits from agricultural energy projects are recognized. The agriculture industry can refocus efforts to develop a viable agriculture-based renewable energy industry that combines affordable food, competitive pricing and environmental benefits.

Utilize research dollars to address Michigan-specific energy issues and opportunities. Research is the key in reducing the cost of generating renewable energy. Breakthroughs in the design of wind turbines have driven down the cost of wind projects, making them competitive with producing electricity from coal and natural gas. Michigan has excellent research universities that are more than capable of doing renewable energy research, but they lack sources of funding to conduct this type of research. Targeted research projects can be funded by the State and private foundations to address specific issues that prevent more renewable energy projects in Michigan. Developing more efficient biogas engines and simplified interconnections are two examples of targeted research projects that address Michigan-specific energy issues.

Are there other ways of engaging Michigan agriculture in meeting Michigan’s renewable energy goal? As a Michigan State University Extension educator who focuses on renewable energy, I am very interested in hearing your ideas. To continue this dialogue, contact me at gouldm@msu.edu.

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