Eric Baker, president and CEO of Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, got it right every time he said it: The huge limestone quarry next to Rogers City is a perfect place to build a coal-fired power plant.
|Wolverine has scrapped plans for a coal-fired power plant in Rogers City. (Photo Clean Water Action)|
The 100-year-old quarry—the city’s economic engine during American steel’s heyday—has industrial-grade shipping docks ready to import coal rather than export limestone. It has high-voltage transmission lines and a moonscape that would be unbothered by such a huge project. It even has a near-endless supply of what’s often used to control smokestack pollutants—limestone.
But the problem that Baker, Wolverine’s lawyers, and the 600-megawatt plant’s many supporters never recognized was this: Planet Earth is not a perfect place to build a coal plant. Coal is too dirty; it has become too expensive to mine, ship, and burn; and it is the number-one source of climate-changing carbon emissions. If the world hopes to escape the worst effects of airborne toxins and global warming, it must stop burning the stuff—the quicker the better.
So Wolverine’s cancellation of its so-called “Clean Energy Venture” puts the firm in step with the rest of the country and the world. The CEV is the 184th new coal plant cancellation in the United States since 2010.
That doesn’t even count the dozens of existing American plants shutting down because they’re too old and too expensive to operate—particularly in the face of dramatically falling prices for natural gas, which is far cleaner than coal and emits about half the climate-altering carbon of even the cleanest, most efficient coal-burner.
Big New York investment banks, huge international development agencies, governments from Ontario to Germany to China—yes, even China!—are moving away from coal as quickly as they can. It just doesn’t make sense any more—not in the face of today’s natural gas supply; not with wind energy now cheaper than new coal and about the same as new gas; not with the vast, largely untapped potential of energy efficiency to meet demands for new energy.
This is surely a sad day in Rogers City for many people. But while the town may be down, it’s not out, with its friendly, can-do, hardworking people who have weathered so much economic pain since the near-disappearance of the limestone-consuming U.S. steel industry. It can still build a strong economic future when its leaders look past what seems like such a fatal setback.
When it comes to private industry, there’s plenty of room in that old quarry for setting up shop and making wind turbines. Freighters docking a quarter-mile away could carry those jumbo-sized pieces of equipment to ports all over the Upper Midwest and the East. If need be, those same docks could even be retrofitted for ocean-going vessels, opening up a huge international market that is moving relentlessly toward clean, renewable energy, especially wind power.
More broadly, when it comes to Wolverine and its local distribution co-op, Presque Isle Electric & Gas, there are plenty of investment opportunities that could help meet energy demand, save folks money on their electric and heating bills, and employ a lot of people.
For example, there are homes and commercial buildings throughout northeast Michigan (Rogers City residents are Consumers Energy customers) that the co-ops could help make more energy-efficient, instead of spending billions on a new plant. There are roofs with lots of room for solar power, which really does work Up North. (Just ask Germany, which is more northerly and cloudier).
There’s even ample wind to spin turbines and make electricity near the quarry: Wolverine—which showed leadership in 2007 by contracting for all the power from the state’s first wind farm—recently handed off to local entrepreneurs its wind study from a spit of nearby land jutting into Lake Huron. Wolverine always said if it got the coal plant, it would put up turbines there; now maybe someone else will.
Here’s the kicker: Federal regulatory efforts to clean up America’s energy supply are, in fact, already increasing the area’s prosperity. Pollution-cutting rules for existing coal plants are putting people there to work right now. In February, Moran Iron Works in Onaway, 22 miles west of Rogers City, announced it would hire 75 people to build pollution control equipment for Consumers’ J.H. Campbell Unit 3 in West Olive.
The $19 million contract happened because the Michigan Economic Development Corporation worked with Moran and Consumers. Add that to the $43 million in clean-air equipment contracts Moran already had with Consumers for some of its other existing coal plants.
Wolverine customers at all five of its co-ops should be relieved. State regulators pointed out in 2010, when the state initially denied Wolverine’s permit for the plant, that it would boost average power bills by a remarkable $76 a month. Wolverine disputed those figures, but never produced its own to prove its case.
Those who depend on Rogers City’s tourism should be relieved, too. A five-year, multi-billion-dollar coal plant construction project would have stopped Rogers City-area tourism in its tracks. Pollution, heavy vehicle traffic and construction commotion aside, every available housing unit within 30 miles would have been locked up as thousands of out-of-town construction workers moved in for temporary gigs.
That would have profoundly changed the town’s culture, social landscape, and way of life—only for those same thousands to then pull up stakes when they were done.
There is no denying it: Clean is better. Renewable is better. Efficiency is better. All are acutely necessary, and this is where the world is headed. With the final cancellation of the Clean Energy Venture—a name that seemed so unreal to its opponents—Rogers City now has room to move toward new, long-lasting opportunities.
Here’s hoping they do. The town’s good people deserve a bright, clean, healthy, stable future, and clean energy can and should be part of it.
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].