Michigan 2009: Reconciling a failing economy with sustainable outlook
Tuesday, July 28, 2009 - 16:44
The weather was frigid in January of this year, but the debate over obtaining permits to build new coal-fired power plants in Michigan was heated.
Wolverine Power Cooperative, a Cadillac based power supplier, proposed to build a new coal-fired power plant in Rogers City, a rural town located in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The Rogers City plant was among six other proposals for new coal-fired power plants in Michigan. At the time, the seven Michigan proposals constituted ten percent of all U.S. proposals for new coal-fired power plants—the most in any one state.
Proponents of the prospective development claimed that it was just the remedy Michigan could use when faced with a weakening economy, a shrinking population, and of course, the looming disappearance of the Big 3 automakers. Presque Isle County—where Rogers City is located—seemed to be a suitable choice for what would be the newest Michigan power plant in over twenty years, given its less-than-desirous ranking as one the top counties for unemployment in the state, at 14.4 percent.
The senior vice president of communications for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity agreed that "these projects, assuming that they are approved by the proper permitting agency, could bring economic relief and create jobs for Michigan workers, at a time when the state battles the worst unemployment rate in the nation."
On the other hand, critics of the proposals expressed earnest concern with what else the coal-fired power plants would bring to Michigan. Causing the most anxiety were the chemical toxin mercury—which creeps into water systems and can cause brain, kidney and lung damage to those exposed and the more widely known greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
Originally, the state Department of Environmental Quality diagnosed that potential mercury pollution was extraneous.
In the early days of February, however, Governor Jennifer Granholm (D) decided to put the proposals for the seven coal-fired power plants on stand-still, calling on her administration to consider "all feasible and prudent alternatives before approving new coal-fired power plants."
Additionally, Granholm publicly prioritized cleaner energy as a Michigan goal by calling on the state to reduce its dependency by 45 percent on electric plants powered by coal and natural gas by 2020.
Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, commended Granholm's move: "Governor Granholm's bold leadership has put Michigan at the forefront of clean energy and economic development. By pausing the coal rush to take a hard look at the alternatives available the Governor is positioning Michigan to the make the smart decisions needed to be a real player in the new clean energy economy."
Currently, Michigan has negative population growth, meaning that energy needs aren’t exactly expanding. Energy analyst Frank Maisano said, "If you need power now, you can’t wait for renewables to be there for you." Now may be a great time for Michigan to make its move to becoming a green presence on the national scene.
More optimistic news came to Michigan on July 26th, when Granholm announced in a radio address that General Electric chose Michigan's Van Buren Township as its site for a new $100 million advanced technology and training center. Located just 25 miles from Detroit, the center is expected to create 1,200 high-skilled jobs as well as 1,600 indirect and spinoff jobs.
Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt said "Companies like GE never travel alone," and projected that the GE center will likely add employees over time.
"The renewable energy facet of GE's business meshes nicely with our economic development incentives as we focus on leading the nation's green industrial revolution and reducing our dependence on foreign oil," Granholm said. "What's particularly exciting will be the research center's work on manufacturing technologies for those renewable energy products. GE’s one of the world’s leading wind turbine suppliers and also manufactures solar energy products for homes and businesses."
For a long time in Michigan, the focus has been to fix our problems: the failing auto industry, the unemployment rate, the rising cost of tuition for public universities, the Detroit Public School System, pollution in the waterways. Finally, there is something for people to feel optimistic about again. While we still have a lot of fixing to do, Michigan is finally looking to reinvent its legacy which has always been to create: to create jobs, to create new industry, to create a green vision. 2009 hasn't been too bad of a year after all.
Photo credit: Chad Johnson/Flickr, LanceCheungImages/Flickr
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