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Michigan alternative electrical generation – Henry Ford is not a good analogy

5 Oct 2015

utility workA recent op ed in Crains Detroit Business argued that legislation pending in Lansing regarding Michigan’s electrical system is wrongheaded. The authors focus on the proposed elimination of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS requiring 10% of Michigan’s electricity be generated by renewables by this year) by the legislation and argue that the legislation will cost Michigan energy jobs. They argue that  Henry Ford wouldn’t have built his automobiles here if there wasn’t a legislative infrastructure to support buyers of his cars.  I think I agree with the authors that we should retain the RPS, but their argument doesn’t persuade me. I believe that the future will include a greater mix of sources of electricity. It will not be simply large power coal-fired plants owned by large utilities providing us electricity.

However, without any historical discussion, they suggest that Henry Ford located his operations in Michigan because somehow the regulatory climate supported buyers of his cars, because in their words Lansing didn’t “kowtow” to the horse and buggy industry and paved streets and put up traffic lights. That’s simply not true.  Detroit’s mayor Hazen Pingree began a push to pave streets in the 1890’s and Ford didn’t begin production of his Model T until 1908 (making over 10,000 of them in 1909).  The traffic light wasn’t patented until 1918 and reportedly the first one was installed in Detroit in 1920 – again, well after Mr. Ford had begun his operations (in 1920, Ford reportedly manufactured 1 Million cars worldwide).

As most students of Detroit history know, the automobile industry focused on Detroit because Henry Ford was from here, there was a history of manufacturing, and there was easy access to raw materials. There was no amazing roadway system which led Ford to conclude “this is the place to build the automobile.”  In short, it was an accident of luck, history, geography and economics. I think a better analogy is the railroads, which required a dedicated infrastructure as Congress wanted to open the western United States to commerce and did so by granting rights, privileges and land so that the railroads could establish their “grid” at a lower cost.

The authors of the op ed pay short shrift to the discussion of the legislation’s other major change – elimination of net metering, but it appears that they view this as problematic also. Net metering is the current system whereby individuals and small businesses that generate their own electricity can sell it back to the grid.  The net metering issue is not over whether individual electricity generators can or should sell power back to the grid – rather, it’s what should be the price of that sale. Currently, individual generators can sell power back to the grid at the retail price of electricity charged by the utilities. This has been a boon for encouraging individuals and others to put up wind turbines and solar cells. The ability to sell excess electricity at the same price that the utility charges certainly means a faster payback which means more people will invest in it.

Utilities argue that this is a subsidy and they’re right.  Individual generators do not have to meet regulatory requirements relating to the power that they generate, nor do they have the costs of ensuring long-term reliability or the overhead costs of delivering power to consumers.  If you took your home-grown tomatoes to Kroger or Meijer, would you expect the law to require the store to buy them from you and at the same price the store sells tomatoes? Of course not.  In my view, the question is not whether there should be an incentive for individuals to create distributed power but, rather, how much of an incentive is fair to incentivize distributed power generation and fair to those who will continue to depend on the existing grid that will need upkeep.

We have an infrastructure in place that requires maintenance and upgrading for the 21st-century.  This is not a problem with a simple one-size-fits all-solution. The Legislature needs a more nuanced approach than simply blowing up the current system, but let’s get the arguments right.

Dire Straits – Crude Oil under the Great Lakes – what will the Courts do about a 61+ year old pipeline?

2 Oct 2015

pipelineEnbridge (the operator of the pipeline that leaked into the Kalamazoo River in 2010) has been assuring the State that there is no reason to worry about its pipelines under the Straights of Mackinac.  A 2014 University of Michigan report concluded that because of mixed currents, within 20 days of a spill from one of the two pipelines, oil would cover a roughly 50 mile stretch between Beaver Island in Lake Michigan to the West and as far Southeast as Rogers City in Lake Huron.  This news catalyzed an effort by the State to review its 62 year old agreement allowing the two pipelines which reportedly carry some 23 million gallons of oil under the Straits of Mackinac each day.

In June a state panel issued a 64-page Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force Report which expressed unease with Enbridge’s assertion it could use the pipelines forever.  The report concluded that the Task Force had “inadequate information at this time to fully evaluate the risks.”   The Task Force recommended independent studies of the risks, alternatives for the safe transport of oil, and an accounting of the costs of responding to a spill from Enbridge Line 5 (the pipelines that flow under the Straits.

It seems as if Michigan’s regulators are not so willing to take Enbridge at its word.  The Attorney General has begun asking Enbridge for documentation and re-requesting when he does not get everything he asked for.  Enbridge appears to have jumped at the change to sign an agreement not to pump heavy crude (the problem in the 2010 spill) through the Straits without giving the State 180 days notice. This cost them nothing as they weren’t using the pipelines for heavy crude and had no plans to do so.  This gave the Task Force the chance to check the first item off its “to do list.”  Enbridge also rushed into place a “dress rehearsal” for a spill which made the front pages of the newspapers. Of course, this exercise was planned and Enbridge’s vendors themselves admit that in some cases equipment would have to be brought from Detroit – a 5 hour car trip in good weather.

While the federal government largely controls pipeline operations, the State’s negotiators in the 1950’s did an OK job with the easement they drafted (see here). The easement has some shortcomings like a bond of $100,000 and a flat insurance amount of $1 Million and no reopeners for changed regulations but it also requires the pipeline to “eliminate any oil or substance which may escape” from a leak or break and to indemnify the State from all damages or losses and the insurance required must be acceptable to the State covering the pipeline’s liability.  Particularly in light of the recent Volkswagen environmental scandal, it seems as if Michigan is taking its environmental stewardship of the Great Lakes even more seriously than usual.  The problem is that unless there is some evidence of a breach of the easement’s standards (as has been alleged regarding the spacing of the pipeline supports) or an imminent threat of a release, there isn’t much that State regulators can do.

While the easement gives the State some say over what Enbridge does, ultimately,  Michigan and federal law will  apply.  As noted by the Task Force, Michigan law gives the State a lot of power after there’s been a spill from a pipeline but not nearly as much over a threatened spill.  The law allows the State to step up and deal with a “threat of release” but there are precious few cases explaining what that means.  When dealing with a “threat” – even one with consequences as potentially huge as a release into the Straits of Mackinac, the Courts have demanded  quite a bit before granting any sort of injunctive relief.  It’s fair to say that unless the pipeline actually begins to leak, there is almost nothing the Courts will do under Michigan law except to hold Enbridge to the somewhat vague terms of a 60+ year old easement.

 

 

What I did on my summer vacation – Michigan’s water heritage

18 Sep 2015

eagleThis summer, Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes (OGL) released its draft Water Strategy for the State of Michigan – and has been holding review sessions throughout the Summer to discuss it.  The Strategy discusses a number of ideas and sets goals including: protecting and restoring aquatic ecosystems, ensuring clean and safe waters, supporting water-based recreation, promoting water-based economies and investing in water infrastructure.

While there are many worthwhile goals and ideas, today, I’m going to focus on the goal of supporting water-based recreation.  Michigan is a water paradise with more boats than just about any other state, the longest freshwater coastline in the Country, nice beaches (see here) and you’re never more than 6 miles from a Great Lake, an inland lake or a river or stream.

As the summer drew to a close,my family spent a weekend in the quad cities area of Michigan and we spent a morning at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.  The Refuge contains more than 9,800 acres of marsh, bottomland hardwood forest, and grasslands.  It’s known locally as the Shiawassee Flats and includes a number of rivers which flow into the Shiawassee River which meets the Tittabawassee River to form the Saginaw River.

We spent our morning with Captain Wil Hufton of Johnny Panther Quests.  He runs an “eco-tour” business and took us up and down the Refuge and it was a lot of fun and very interesting. We saw hawks, egrets, herons and many other birds. The highlights were definitely seeing bald eagles in the wild as well as deer running along the river bank. Wil told us about the history of the area from the logging days through Michigan’s industrial era all the way to today. He educated us about changes in the river system and the challenges the system faces and has overcome.

Jon Allan, the  Director of the OGL, has spoken a lot about getting back in touch with our aquatic roots.  Now, I can see what he’s talking about.  I know my family enjoyed our eco-tour t and I would highly recommend taking a Johnny Panther eco-tour if you have plans to be in the Saginaw area some early morning or late evening.

 

What do Tom Brady and every dispute with an environmental agency have in common?

13 May 2015

 A friend of mine recently pointed out that if Tom Brady appeals the punishment against him, the process is spelled out in the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (see here). Buried at Article 46 (between injury protection and union security), is the process for appealing a sanction by the Commissioner.  For appeals of everything other than unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct (which have a slightly different, slightly more pro-player process), the Commissioner, after consulting with Union’s Executive Director, appoints one or more hearing officers. If that seems to unfairly stack the deck against Brady, well, you’re not alone in that opinion.

However, Tom Brady isn’t alone in this situation.  Before a company or person “aggrieved” by an agency decision may appeal that decision to the Courts, typically, she must “exhaust” her administrative remedies and process and create a record for review by the Courts. So, if your permit has been pulled or conditions have been imposed on you that you think are unfair, before you ever get to see a judge, you must, in Michigan, typically proceed through what’s called a “contested case.” Under the  Michigan Administrative Procedures Act,  the agency itself or one or 1 or more hearing officers designated and authorized by the agency to handle contested cases, are required to be the presiding officer in a contested case. While the law does say that hearings are to be conducted impartially, it does seem odd that an employee of the agency whose decision one is appealing gets to sit in judgment on that appeal and is the one to control the making of an administrative record that a court would review.

While the hearing officer in Tom Brady’s case results from a negotiated agreement, it does seem that foxes guarding the henhouses is the order of the day and some are only now realizing that perhaps we should reconsider what looks like a fair process on the surface appears skewed when one scratches only a little below the surface.

What will be the top stories of 2015?

23 Jan 2015

edit_calendar_ssk_47433454Happy new year!  I know it’s almost February but as this is my first blog post of the year, I thought (particularly after hearing the State of the Union and the State of the State speeches)  I’d predict the big stories of 2015 in no particular order:

  • Wetland Rules – the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finally proposed rules in 2014  to address the fallout of the Rapanos case.  The proposal was met with a firestorm of disapproval, particularly from the farming world.  Will they ever finalize them?
  • Brownfield TIF Legislation – after all that work last year, will the Legislature take up streamlining this program and expanding it to allow Michigan to be even more competitive in redeveloping brownfields?
  • EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules vs. Congress – in September, 2013, EPA issued a proposal for carbon pollution from new power plants; in June  2014, EPA issued a proposal to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants – the GOP and coal and oil interests in Congress have fought this for some time.  Will the rules be adopted and enforced?  Will there be enough time for electricity generators to get alternative plans in place before being forced to shutter their oldest, least efficient and most polluting plants?
  • Keystone Pipeline – President Obama and Congress have been locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline for almost 3 years now – he seemed to indicate in the State of the Union that he’d veto legislation – will he?
  • Energy Policy – Governor Snyder has pushed for an energy policy, legislation is expected this year and the Governor recently mentioned an intention to develop a new energy agency that would make Michigan more competitive for business.  What that will entail in light of the likely changes due to federal regulations will be interesting to see – will Michigan upgrade or discard its renewable portfolio standard? Can Michigan reduce electrical cost while improving both reliability and environmental performance?
  • Water Policy – the Governor’s long-awaited great lakes policy is expected this year.
  • Pipelines – in addition to the Keystone pipeline, there has been a lot of interest in pipelines in, under and around the Great Lakes – could there be federal and state changes there?
  • Detroit’s Water Authority – it is supposed to morph into a regional authority – as I said previously, the easy part was getting to the agreement last year – will the hard work succeed or will it fail, causing major shockwaves for roughly half of the State’s population?

Gas taxes, electrics and hybrids – is Michigan paying attention?

17 Dec 2014

Tesla

A sharp, environmentally friendly car, but also a “free rider”?

Everyone agrees that Michigan’s roads are in awful shape.  Everyone seems to agree on the amount of money to get them into good shape and keep them there (an additional $1.2 Billion a year – although MDOT argues that it may be closer to $2 Billion/year).  What no one seems to be able to agree on is how to pay for that.  With a week left to go this year (and I wonder why they aren’t working through the 31st on this), the House has passed two bills and the Senate has passed another.

Michigan, desperate to fund much-needed road repairs, appears unwilling to take on this issue

The first House bill would amend the General Sales Tax Act to eliminate, over 6 years, the sales tax on motor fuels. The proposed exemption would first reduce the portion of the sales tax that existed before the approval of Proposal A on March 15, 1994. After January 1, 2021, eligible fuel would be exempt from the sales tax. The Legislature’s own financial analysis shows reductions in State and local revenue by approximately $1.1 billion by fiscal year 2021-2022.  The second bill would amend the Motor Fuel Tax Act to replace the current excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel with a single excise tax that would be adjusted annually.  The current gasoline fuel tax is 19 cents per gallon and under the bill, the tax rate could go up every year but could not exceed 32.5 cents.

the number of miles driven is a good proxy for wear and tear on the roads but I wonder if there should be some weighting based on, well, vehicle weight

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Electric Shaming – Part 2 – “I told you so”

15 Dec 2014

1368974_10201396380089655_297288408_nA year ago, I raised the question “has electricity shaming come to Detroit?”  This was after I started receiving the monthly “letter of shame” that DTE generates, comparing my family to our more and less efficient neighbors.  It appears I’m not alone in wondering about this.

Saturday’s Detroit Free Press asked the same question.  The answer appears to be about the same as mine was – most people wonder who are these “more efficient” neighbors and what are they doing that I am not?   Interestingly, the Free Press article says DTE and Consumers can document a decrease in electricity usage after these letters (and emails) start going out – albeit a relatively small decrease – 1%.  In the meantime. I’d appreciate better information on how to save energy rather than just the generic platitudes about switching lightbulbs (I’m working on it), vacuuming out my refrigerator (I do that)  and ditching the old refrigerator in my basement (not going to happen).