Experts: Fossil fuel not the only game in town for energy needs

ALPENA — Whether it is turning the key in a car to go to work, or flipping a light switch for some light, fossil fuels are no longer the only way to achieve the electricity needs for the actions, experts said.

According to experts, residents and businesses are more and more seeking alternative energy sources as prices dip and businesses work to go green.

Dan Scripps, vice president for the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, said one source is solar energy as prices of panels become affordable.

“We’re seeing solar in residential scale and larger utility scale projects, some of the most exciting stuff around is innovation in business models, where you are seeing more and more companies wanting to procure energy from renewable sources,” Scripps said.

One thing that is driving the change in energy sources from coal and oil to other alternatives is price, including the decline in prices for natural gas.

Although natural gas is a fossil fuel, the amount of carbon emitted from use is far less than oil and coal, Scripps said.

He said the prices drop and people shift to a source of energy that is cleaner for the environment.

“A lot of it driven by economics,” he said. “Natural gas is at a historic low and renewables continue to decrease in cost. If you were to ask someone 10 years ago they would be surprised. I think it surprised lot of people even the biggest advocates to the extent the world has changed, it’s going to only continue as we get better at integrating renewal.”

But even though there are innovative technologies like wind energy and solar generation, Nick Assendelft, spokesman for the Michigan Agency for Energy, said for the time being fossil fuels are a main energy generation source for residents.

“Of course you have a whole range of renewables, wind energy and solar, and there are some smaller energy providers that are using biomass, or hydroelectric, but the main ones are coal and natural gas,” he said.

Nuclear energy is still going on in the state in a handful of locations, Assendelft said. That being said, large energy companies are looking at alternatives to fossil fuels.

“We just had the Michigan Public Service Commission (look at a request) for a Consumers Energy wind turbine farm in Tuscola County,” he said.

Assendelft said there are many homeowners who are taking the leap into providing energy for their own home through wind and mostly solar.

“It’s become cheaper in terms of installing a bunch of panels on your roof or installing a wind turbine and some of the energy elements of that,” he said.

Homeowners who have energy sources also can make money through net metering programs through power companies, according to state reports. Net metering is metering by power companies that show how much energy is put back into the electrical grid by residential energy customers through means such as solar generation or wind power.

According to a report from the Michigan Public Service Commission, the total number of net metering customers in the state — not all power companies are required to offer the metering — was less than 100 for solar energy in 2009. By 2015, the final year of the report, there were nearly 2000 customers with the ability to put energy back into the grid by solar energy.

The report states that customers have put 16,000 total kilowatt hours of energy from various platforms back into the grid in 2015. That means that in addition to supplying 100 percent of their own energy needs, additional units were sold. Statistics show that in Alpena County there are nearly 100 net metering customers as of 2015.

Scripps said selling electricity back to the power companies is more and more attractive.

“You are starting to see new business models being developed and the public service commission updated our rules under a federal law that’s about 30 years old, basically changing how projects that want to sell back to the utility can do it easier,” he said.

As far as one of the first renewable electricity sources, the hydroelectrial dam, Assendelft does not see them going the way of the dodo where fossil fuels may in generations.

“I think they would still be part of the mix,” he said. “If you have a hydro facility that is humming right along, I don’t see any reason that it as long as it’s producing energy it would still be in the mix.”

Many in Alpena assume that the hydro electrical dams in and around the city are owned by Alpena Power Company, but they are not.

President Gary Graham said the dams were sold in the 1990s, getting the company out of the hydro-electrical business but not the energy business.

He said the company is a third-party distributor of sorts with contracts from Consumers Energy to distribute electricity it buys from the company.

“They supply 99 percent of the power that we sell to our customers,” he said.

Despite this Graham said the company follows national trends in energy.

“There is a significant shift away from coal to natural gas and renewables,” he said. “It seems to be nationwide. I wouldn’t expect Michigan would be any different from that. In some places you see a lot of talk about nuclear plants becoming uneconomical because of the current lower prices (for other electrical generation). Nobody knows for sure how long that will last.”

Scripps said he believes even natural gas eventually will not be used for energy generation as battery storage technology gets better and renewables move into the forefront.

“I think on the electricity generation side we are very close to a point where we are going to get most of our electricity from renewable resources, from carbon free resources,” he said.

That is to power the home and business, but to power transportation Scripps said he sees it taking longer.

“There will be places where we will quickly see a rapid growth of electric vehicles,” he said, adding those areas would be large cities where infrastructure for electric vehicle ride sharing fleets can be established.

With Michigan being one location where auto industry activities are gaining steam, residents could be in store for some innovation.

“I feel like every six months it’s a different world and I think Michigan has a lot to gain from that,” Scripps said.

Jason Ogden can be reached via email at jogden@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Jason on Twitter @jo_alpenanews.

Net metering snapshot

∫ Net metering customers (solar) in Michigan in 2009: Less than 100

∫ Net metering customers (solar) in 2015: more than 2,000

∫ Kilowatt hours generated in 2015 by net metering customers: 16,000

Net metering is putting energy back into the grid from businesses and homeowners through means such as solar and wind energy.