Midwest Energy President/CEO Robert L. Hance spoke to Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889 as the guest of City Clerk Jim Snow.
Midwest Energy President/CEO Robert L. Hance spoke to Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889 as the guest of City Clerk Jim Snow.

Archived Story

Practically going green

Published 9:06am Friday, October 9, 2009

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

Despite Michigan’s “permacloud,” solar panels outperformed the wind turbine even before it was damaged in Tuesday night’s high winds at Midwest Energy Cooperative’s renewable energy park.

President and Chief Executive Officer Robert L. Hance informed Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889, “Solar is beating the pants off the wind, which I never would have guessed.”

From January to September, the $65,531 park cost $6,800 to operate – $3,152 for the solar panel side and $3,648 for the wind turbine.

Peak months of output for the 4,831 kWh generated were 716 in March, 690 in April, 630 in May and 577 in June.

“As demand goes up” in warm months for air conditioning, wind slacks off.

“It’s even less available when we need it the most,” Hance said.

“They’ve found in commercial farms out West that the most generation is at night when the load is off. There was a serious issue in Texas when they had an unusually hot spring and there wasn’t any wind. They had rolling blackouts and asked people to turn off air conditioning because what they expected to get out of wind wasn’t there when they most needed it. We need to take a more sensible approach and have everyone understand the real economics behind this before we just lurch into something.”

For its $65,531 investment, Midwest Energy could realize 30 percent of monthly usage, with a solar payback of 53 years, five months; and wind, 196 years.

Where it costs 85 cents per kWh generated by solar panels, nuclear, coal and gas, “I don’t have specific numbers, but as an industry we build big plants for central station power supply. They’re located where people won’t put up too much of a fuss. In time, as need increases, you have old plants mixed with newer plants. It’s a blended cost. Coal, gas and nuclear in today’s environment are going to cost substantially more than what you’re paying right now.

“Here’s the problem,” Hance said.

“As an industry, we haven’t had gumption enough to fight for you guys. The average age in Michigan is 50 years. We’re talking about facilities with expected lives of 30 to 35 years. We’re on borrowed time. Given today’s permitting environment,” a new coal facility could take eight years; nuclear, 10 to 12 years.

A 2006 study on the Michigan Public Service Commission Web site “puts that in real terms,” he said. “Number one, our plants are well past their prime. We should have been doing something about them way before this. Number two, we went from an environment where we had 20-percent capacity reserved. These plants are highly mechanical. They break.”

Call it the recession’s silver lining, but, “Detroit’s down to something under a million people, manufacturing jobs have left the state, so we’ve bought a little breathing time.
“The only reason we don’t have a significant problem right now is because our economy is in the tank. Is that reassuring?”

Thursday night near Grand Rapids, Hance was scheduled to speak on cap and trade to the West Michigan TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party.

“One thing I find most fascinating about the green political environment we think we want to live in and play our part in to be more environmentally friendly,” Hance said, “is that it comes at a price and a cost.

“When you start throwing that out, all of a sudden people start shying away from being quite as green as they thought they wanted to be.”

“The flip side of that,” he continued, “is that there are a number of folks out there who are very encouraging when it comes to promoting renewable energy. We’ve discovered that not all of them provide all of the information necessary for folks to make a reasonable economic decision.

“Quite frankly – and I don’t mean to belittle this process – but they’re sales folks. If they don’t get it out of the box and into your backyard, they didn’t make any money,” Hance said.

Midwest Energy Cooperative (formerly Fruit Belt), of which Hance has been president and chief executive officer since 2002, in May unveiled the Danny Young Memorial Renewable Energy Park behind its offices on M-60 East in Cassopolis.

Designed to educate and help interested consumers make informed decisions about incorporating renewable technologies at their homes and businesses, the park memorializes an apprentice lineman killed in December 2006 in a gas line explosion.

The park features a 4 kW solar panel display and a 5 kW wind turbine – sizes selected to represent what a typical residential application might include.

Each element is grid-tied and metered to provide real-time information and data on output and availability.

A live data center allows you to see and understand how current conditions translate into renewal energy generation.

Year-to-date economic analysis provides an overview of the cost of the system, monthly output and the resulting cost per kilowatt hour.

A feature on Midwest’s Web site (www.TeamMidwest.com) allows customers to enter their meter number.

Based on consumption history, their payback period will be calculated on each of the renewable resources, solar and wind.

“Folks think we have a bias because we’re a utility company,” Hance said. “I really have to fight that. We do have a bias, but ours is a consumer bias. We spent $65,531 on this equipment. If you’ve ever changed an element in a hot water heater – electric current goes in one end and comes back out the other end and heats up, nothing fancy – they usually take 3,500 to 4,000 watts. Our turbine at maximum output, gives you 5,000 watts. For $35,154, on a good, windy day we can heat water. I sound facetious, but I see too many people taken advantage of.

“Commercial-scale wind turbines work, but they’re a megawatt and a half, not 5,000 watts. They’re significantly larger than that, with 300-foot blades on a 400-foot tower. They’re designed to be in places where they’re going to have wind a majority of the time. In Michigan, if you look at wind speed maps, the best you’re going to find is 35-percent wind availability. That means, at best, 35 days out of 100 you can expect to have enough wind to get the maximum output of that turbine.

“We get so fascinated with this notion that the fuel – sun and wind – are free, but it’s the conversion of the free fuel into electricity that costs money. If you just want to hold up a little wind fan outside, it will spin, but it won’t make electricity. There’s a whole bunch of other equipment that’s required to convert one form of energy to another form of energy. That’s what we don’t talk about,” Hance said. “I don’t know anybody who’s going to be satisfied having electricity 35 percent of the time. Frankly, I know it’s the contrary because we’re already at 99.999 percent of the time, and every time the lights go off, we still get complaints.”

Having an electric generation source that’s effective only 35 percent of the time means, obviously, offsetting that gap means backing up wind with something else for the other 65 days.

Midwest solar panels are arrayed 60 feet long by 10 feet high.

“Six hundred square feet is a bit of a reach,” he said. “Most folks can’t put that much on their roofs. I don’t know if you know, but commercial-scale solar is not fixed. Most commercial solar applications follow the sun. It moves mechanically to capture the most solar radiation it can. But this fixed piece cost $30,000.”

Five hundred watts can power a vacuum sweeper, a dishwasher or a clothes iron; 1,500 watts, a space heater, a hair dryer, a microwave oven, a whirlpool tub or a 1.5-horsepower pool filter motor; 2,500 watts, a large burner on the stove.

Sustained 7-mph winds are necessary for any output from Midwest’s turbine.

“It peaks at about 22 mph,” Hance said. “At 25, it starts braking.”
“Capacity factor” refers to the actual power production over a given period of time compared with the amount of power that would have been produced if it had operated at maximum output over the same period.

For solar it is 14.2 percent; wind, 3.4 percent; 8.2 percent total.

While it costs 85 cents per kilowatt hour with solar panels or $3.26 with the wind turbine ($1.41 total), the average retail price in Michigan for electricity is 11 cents.

“How many of you are going to put in solar panels to get away from the grid?” Hance asked. “You’re not going to put in a $35,000 unit in Oceana County and hope you can get the electricity down to you. These guys sell these things in catalogs or on the Internet with, ‘Don’t you want to get yourself off the grid and get away from these outrageous utility charges?’

“We’ve had people with the wherewithal expend a lot of money putting them in and been largely disappointed because they spent a lot of money hoping to save money and, in fact, they’re spending more than they were before. That’s really what got behind this project in the first place.”

Hance said sparsely-populated South Dakota and North Dakota represent “the best wind resource we have in the country,” leading to construction of big wind farms.

Transporting that energy to, say, Chicago, means building a $60 billion transmission system.

He showed a Michigan wind map, with a red line tracing the mitten lakeshore denoting the best areas.

Michigan wind farms are being constructed in the Thumb.

This area was shaded in tan for “marginal.”

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