Newsletter: Clean energy wins in Michigan and California

Start your Monday with two accounts of cleaner energy beating out dirtier options.
By Julian Spector

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Start your Monday with two accounts of cleaner energy beating out dirtier options.

Michigan dumps coal faster than expected

Michigan’s largest utility, Consumers Energy, wants to shut down its last coal plants by 2025, 15 years ahead of schedule.

  • Eliminating this carbon-intensive fuel source is crucial for the utility’s goal of reaching 90 percent clean electricity by 2040.
  • The move is expected to save Consumers’ consumers $650 million compared to keeping the coal as previously planned.

The catch here is that Consumers wants to replace the lost coal capacity with natural-gas baseload and peaking capacity at existing plants. Climate activists, naturally, would like to see renewables and battery storage replace coal, rather than gas plants.

In fairness to Consumers, the battery market in that region hasn’t taken off yet. It’s hard to convince regulators to bet grid reliability on a technology that’s seen great success elsewhere, but not nearby. (It’s the same technology, but there’s a learning curve.)

But it’ll be worth revisiting soon. The utility just decided that the status quo (legacy coal plants) was both dirtier and more expensive than a newer technology; it stands to reason that the same thing could happen to gas in the not-so-distant future. It’s already happening elsewhere.

Given the pace of technological change, tapping existing gas plants is less risky than building brand-new ones, which would need several decades to pay off the investment.

California regulators: No more gas for our massive power needs

Over in California, grid regulators are racing to add electricity supplies to replace gas and nuclear plants that are retiring. They just approved a portfolio that excludes natural gas, so the new construction will consist of renewables, batteries and other carbon-free technologies.

California building clean energy is nothing new, but the scale of the buildout is colossal: 11.5 gigawatts of zero-carbon capacity to be procured by 2026, divvied up among the state’s power providers.

If raw gigawatts don’t move you, here’s how Vote Solar’s Ed Smeloff contextualized the scale:

  • This procurement will require the buildout of roughly one-quarter of the state’s existing generation capacity in just five years. 
  • It also could double the state’s current solar generating capacity, already the largest in the nation.

The plan includes some fun new categories, like:

  • 1 gigawatt dedicated to technologies that store power for 8 hours or longer.
  • 1 gigawatt reserved for technologies that generate when needed, for as long as needed,” a category where geothermal will likely excel. 

Those carve-outs ensure some diversity beyond the solar and battery projects that have become the standard new-build model in California.

Speaking of long-duration storage…

For a deep dive on one company taking its long-duration storage tech to the public markets, check out my profile of ESS from last week. It is angling to become a billion-dollar company and raise a bunch of cash to build out its domestic manufacturing base in Portland, Oregon.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.