With Proper Investment, Hydropower Offers Michigan a Renewable Energy Advantage 

Like other renewables, hydropower is a clean, non-emitting energy source, but unlike wind and solar, it is consistently reliable, unaffected by flagging wind or cloudy weather. Moreover, its production costs are lower than wind, solar, nuclear, and natural gas, making it the cheapest even among its renewable counterparts. 

The development of hydropower in the United States has roots as far back as 1880 when the construction of a hydroelectric turbine in Grand Rapids provided the first public demonstration of hydropower in the country. With Michigan boasting the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth—by total volume they contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water—its unique geography has made the state a leader in hydropower.

Like other renewables, hydropower is a clean, non-emitting energy source, but unlike wind and solar, it is consistently reliable, unaffected by flagging wind or cloudy weather. Moreover, its production costs are lower than wind, solar, nuclear, and natural gas, making it the cheapest even among its renewable counterparts.

However, despite hydropower’s many benefits to consumers and producers, new development lags behind other renewables globally, and in Michigan, major investment is needed in maintenance and upgrades to the dozens of existing hydroelectric dams.

The Michigan State Utility Workers Council (MSUWC) currently has 55 UWUA members working in operations and maintenance at 13 hydroelectric dams on 5 different rivers.

According to Tom Cole, Senior VP at MSUWC, “With the current push for renewables, it is urgent that we upgrade our older units at the run of the river flows with modern technology. The ability to produce power is difficult, with aging equipment and the ensuing loss of efficiency that happens over time and the amount of water in the river due to climate change these units can be rendered inoperable.”

Michigan would do well to follow the lead of Washington and Idaho, which are both case studies on the economic benefits of hydropower. The two states rely on hydroelectric more than all other states, and they ranked second and fourth in the nation, respectively, for lowest electricity prices in 2016.

While Michigan remains a leader in hydropower, it is underutilizing its available hydro resources and there are enormous opportunities to upgrade existing facilities to improve grid reliability. According to Cole, “The facility at Ludington has some of the largest inductive motors in the world. Ludington Pumped Storage can deliver large amounts of electricity to the grid at a moment’s notice when demand is high, helping to ensure grid reliability and adding VARS when motor loads on the system create the need.”

The Pumped Storage Hydroelectric Plant at Ludington offer over 2000 MW of Net Demonstrated Capability. However, when the plant’s reservoir is low, “The units transition from generators to reverse spinning motors,” says Cole. “The VARS needed to support the grid when those motors are running are primarily supplied by large coal-fired plants and nuclear plants that have the rotating mass to deliver the VARS the grid needs for reliability,” he added.

According to a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, entitled Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2017, “Electricity from renewables will soon be consistently cheaper than from fossil fuels.” By 2020, the report projects that all the power generation technologies that are now in commercial use will fall within the fossil fuel-fired cost range, with some even undercutting fossil fuels.

While renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower will become increasingly invaluable to the capacity market, Cole points out that major investments are needed to make the most of Michigan’s hydropower potential, and that, given the nature of the renewable technology, “Maintaining and improving grid reliability will still require us to rely on the power produced from coal and nuclear.”