By JAMES DAU
Special to the Journal
MARQUETTE - Nearly 70 percent of all new power plants built in the Great Lakes region use wind as an energy source, according to reports from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Wind-generated electricity is gaining in popularity in the Great Lakes region. (Photos courtesy Great Lakes Echo)
The reports, which summarize developments in the United States' energy infrastructure, show the Great Lakes states contributed to a national trend of increased reliance on renewable energy. Nationwide, 49 percent of all new power plants in the country were using renewable sources in 2012.
Only two fossil fuel plants came online in the Great Lakes region since January 2012, a coal-fired plant in Washington County, Ill. and a gas-fired plant near Dresden, Ohio, according to reports. The same period saw the completion of 21 wind farms and 8 plants using other renewable sources such as solar energy and sustainable-harvested biomass fuel.
The wind farms, which contain a total of 1,532 new wind turbines, generate approximately 2,952 MW of energy. That's 68 percent of the 4,372 megawatts produced by all new power plants built since January 2012.
"Wind power has grown markedly in the last decade or so," said Matthew Wagner, wind development manager for DTE Energy, a power generation company based in Detroit. "There has been much more discussion lately about going green, particularly because the conversation around climate change has increased in frequency. Whether you agree with this theory or not, wind energy is the renewable technology that really provides the highest return in terms of energy production and cost-effectiveness."
Other renewable technologies, like solar or geothermal energy, do not approach the economic benefits of wind power, Wagner said.
DTE completed a trio of wind parks in Michigan's Thumb region in December, producing 110 megawatts using 69 turbines.
Many states in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan, have set renewable energy requirements.
Michigan law dictates that 10 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2015, although voters last fall rejected a plan that would have raised the amount to 25 percent by 2025.
In New York, the target is 30 percent by 2015. In Ohio, it is 25 percent by 2025. A full compilation of renewable energy standards across the nation is provided by the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.
Most new facilities in the Great Lakes region were built in Michigan. The largest new facility is Iberdrola's 152-turbine Blue Creek Wind Farm in Ohio. New wind plants were built in every Great Lakes state except Wisconsin.
Advocates of wind power have greeted its growth with optimism.
"Above all, wind is a clean, renewable and home-grown source of energy," said Kelley Welf, spokesperson for Wind on the Wires, a Midwest-based wind energy advocacy group.
Welf said that in addition to wind power's environmental benefits, it stimulates local job growth.
"A typical 250 megawatt wind farm creates 1,079 jobs over the life of the project, including positions in manufacturing, construction, engineering and management," Welf said. "With about 67 percent of the 8,000 component parts of a turbine now being manufactured in the U.S., the cost of producing the turbines has decreased dramatically."
Despite these advantages, wind power continues to face difficulties when compared to traditional energy sources.
"It would be a challenge for a wind park to match the output of a traditional power plant," Wagner said. "This is because typical wind turbines range in capacity from 1 to 3 megawatts, while traditional coal-fired plants have capacities on the order of hundreds of megawatts. Our largest plant is capable of generating more than 3,000 megawatts."
For a wind farm to approach that evel of energy production, it would need about 4,000 turbines, Wagner said.
"Could you build a wind farm that size? Probably. But you'd need lots and lots of land, so I'm not sure you could do it practically," he said. Wind energy is also less reliable than traditional energy sources, because wind does not occur with the same speed or frequency at all times.
As states pass new and stricter emissions controls that make traditional power generation more expensive, wind power, which is not subject to those controls, has become more appealing, Wagner said.
As the deadlines set by state renewable energy standards draw closer power companies expect to continue to increase their wind power production.