December 7, 2016

Promises, Promises

The wind blows often on our country acre just outside Mason. It gathers speed over the open field to our west and rises over an incline to attack us full force. Mostly it’s just a nuisance, but sometimes it blows so hard it makes being outside uncomfortable.

I once thought this would be the perfect location for a windmill. That was the early ’80s, when, like now, there was big interest in the promise of free energy. I looked into it, but it would’ve taken 20 years of reduced electric bills to pay off the cost of a system-and that’s assuming the equipment would never require maintenance.

There are few things in this world that are as charged with false promise as free energy. Whenever energy costs spike, gadget hawkers make promises. There’s the gizmo that attaches to your car’s fuel system to double your mileage, the magic juice you pour in the gas tank, the space heater that cuts heating bills, the secret contraption that was hijacked by the oil and car companies to preserve their monopolies. (Oh, the fantastic things you can find on the internet!)

A few years after ditching the windmill idea, I became intrigued by geothermal heat pumps. (Also called geoexchange, these systems use electricity to move heat from the earth to your home. It also works in reverse. It produces up to five times the heat you get from the same amount of electricity used in a resistance heater. And, it’s not magic-it’s practical and it works.) We had one installed in our 1944 Cape Cod-style home in 1989. Out went the gas furnace and wood stove. In was cleaner air and more comfortable heating and air conditioning. Our energy bills went down, paying for the system cost in just under eight years.

It’s good to look for additional energy sources; finding them has helped civilization prosper. But over the years they have succeeded or failed by virtue of their economic sense, and without being imbedded in a government constitution.

Since you’re reading this magazine, you already know about the “25 by 25” ballot Proposal 3 (pages 12-13).

No other state has such a mandate, and it seems a step too far. It’s like putting in the constitution that one-quarter of the food grocery stores sell, and every shopper eats, must be organic. That would satisfy organic farmers and grocers, since they would make money on the deal, but it would impose a cost on consumers they may not be able, or wish, to pay.

So, I looked up the definition of constitution: “a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed.”

I don’t think Proposal 3 is a fundamental principle, and I don’t think we want to make it a precedent.

Utilities in the state currently operate under a renewable portfolio standard of 10 percent by 2015, based on a law passed in 2008. I watched negotiations for that legislation. It was a tough, lengthy process. No one got everything they wanted. But the result was fair, progressive, flexible and doable. By all accounts, the renewable mandate will be met by your co-op and other utilities.

But it’s not cheap, and, come 2015, after all the data from this experiment is digested, we’ll have a better idea of how we should move to the next goal. The place for that determination is in the Legislature, where thorough analysis and debate can give our elected representatives something to do. Freezing a mandate in the constitution, without the flexibility to respond to changing market conditions, would put Michigan at a disadvantage.

Another reason is that wind is a fickle worker. It doesn’t blow all the time, and can’t be relied upon when you need it most. As we see more wind turbines in Michigan, we will also see more gas-fired electric generation plants to back up those wind turbines when the wind isn’t blowing, which is about three-quarters of the time. That’s an expense Proposal 3 proponents don’t acknowledge.

Proponents also suggest that it will foster jobs—sure, but probably no more than the jobs lost by replacing other types of generation, and many will be temporary. They say it will make Michigan a leader in the renewables industry and keep it competitive with other states, but other states don’t have to comply with a costly constitutional mandate. They say it will keep more of the money we spend on energy in the state. But what if other states enacted similar policies about our cars or the products of our growing renewables industry? It’s a harmful economic policy for Michigan and a myopic view of the world.

We don’t dictate in the constitution what people eat, and it shouldn’t be used to dictate where we get our energy. I agree we should move ahead on renewable energy as fast as we can, for all kinds of health and environmental reasons—but in the marketplace, not the constitution. Given the pace of improvements in technology, it’s entirely possible that we could reach 25 percent renewable energy in 13 years, but it should be on a path that is free to respond to market forces.

The promise of renewable energy is real, the promises of Proposal 3 proponents are as uncertain as the wind. I’m voting No on 3.

Mike Buda is editor emeritus of Country Lines. Email Mike at mbuda@countrylines.com or comment on his columns at
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Comments

  1. I’m sure you took advantage of the government rebates right? I know people who calculate a 6 year payback with their solar arrays and are very happy with them.