Alternating Currents: How Michigan Electricity Is Made

Palisades Nuclear Power Plant

Welcome to part one of Alternating Currents. We will be talking about electricity. We use it for pretty much everything. It is the cornerstone of modern society and all the amenities we enjoy. Without it, we would be lost, cold, and quite hungry. So how is electricity made in Michigan? In this article we are going to cover the basics.

Science of Electrical Generation

Electrical generation is the process of generating electric power from primary energy sources, or any source of energy found in nature. Primary energy sources are either renewable or non-renewable.

The vast, vast majority of our electrical power is generated through a basic scientific principle known as electromagnetic induction, based on Faraday’s Law. Think back to elementary school when your teacher would have you rotate a magnet inside a tube of copper wire to power a tiny light bulb. You were generating electricity through electromagnetic induction. Electric generators work using that same principle. But they generally won’t fit on a school desk.

The Steam Turbine

Would you be surprised to learn that nearly 80% of the world’s electricity is created using steam turbines? The technology was invented in 1884 and we still rely heavily on it today, albeit with far better materials and more efficient designs.

For the majority of generated electricity, a primary energy source is used to create heat. The heat turns a liquid into steam, which is forced through a turbine at high pressures. The turbine operates a generator like the ones we mentioned above. Even the mighty nuclear reactor uses its controlled fission reactions to create steam. But as you can see below, we aren’t talking about your standard windmill here. This is a Siemens SST-9000 nuclear reactor steam turbine on display.

Siemens SST9000 Nuclear Reactor Steam Turbine
Siemens SST-9000 Nuclear Reactor Steam Turbine

Electricity In Michigan

In Michigan, electrical power primarily comes from three main sources: coal, nuclear fission, and natural gas.

As of 2013, coal-powered plants generate roughly one-half of Michigan’s electricity. Three nuclear power plants contribute roughly one quarter and natural gas contributes another 12%. A varied collection of renewable and non-renewable energy sources generate the remaining 8%. Michigan is somewhat of an anomaly in the energy industry. We are heavily dependent on coal, yet we have no active coal plants. We purchase the entirety of our coal from other states to the tune of nearly 1.2 billion dollars in fuel.

2013 Michigan Electricity Generation Sources Graphic

Michigan benefits in a number of ways from its temperate climate. Mild summers produce mostly comfortable temperatures, and air conditioning usage is less common than in other states. And in the winter, a tiny percentage of households rely on electricity as their primary heating source. Most households utilize natural gas. For these reasons, per person electrical usage falls below the national average.

Renewable Energy

Always a hot button issue. Contrary to common public opinion, there is more to renewable energy than just wind and solar and for Michigan that’s actually a big deal. Solar energy soaks up the headlines, but as far as generating electricity in Michigan there’s just not a lot there. Electrical generation from renewable primary sources is dominated by biomass, wind, and hydroelectric. While Michigan ranks 18th in the nation for wind resources, we are one of the leading developers of on-shore wind energy and installed capacity. We will be going into the economics of energy generation and costs associated with the different sources in a future article, so for now we will simply take a look at the various methods of production we have here in Michigan.

Primary Renewable Sources

  • Wind Energy (On-shore and off-shore)
  • Solar Energy (Utility and residential)
  • Geothermal Energy
  • Landfill Gas
  • Municipal Solid Waste
  • Biomass
  • Hydroelectric

I am sure that some of you are wondering why solar energy is not a category in the graph above? Well, solar power contributed only .03% of generated electricity in Michigan in 2012. New utility-scale systems will be opening soon, but installed capacity lags tremendously compared to its counter parts.

Biomass is another significant renewable contributor. Much of the biomass energy development centers on wood and wood waste products. Wood waste can be anything from outdated railroad ties to bark and recycled utility poles. For example, Michigan State University grows several acres of hybrid poplar trees with the sole intention of harvesting them for use in the T.B. Simon power plant. It is part of their transition plan to a 100% renewable campus. Shown below is a cutaway of the T.B. Simon Power Plant. The power plant is the largest on-campus generator in the nation. It houses 5 cogeneration fuel units and a 6th sole generation (natural gas) unit. Unit 4 has been retrofitted to burn a coal/biomass blend utilizing the aforementioned poplar wood.

T.B. Simon Power Plant Graphic
T.B. Simon Power Plant – Credit: MSU

Future Trends In Michigan Electricity Generation

Due to the changing economics of coal-powered electrical generation, we will most likely see a marked decline in coal use in the near future as old plants are taken offline. New coal is quite expensive and natural gas is increasingly more cost effective. Between 2011 and 2012, megawatt hours generated by natural gas increased from 12,982,054 to 21,748,538. This trend is likely to continue. We will talk more about costs and trends in a future article.

Michigan’s potential wind energy capacity is tremendous. The market is expanding rapidly as capital lenders increasingly see wind as a good investment. Wind energy will most likely dominate Michigan’s renewable portfolio for quite awhile as new projects come online in the new future.

But it is also quite important to remember that while wind and biomass are cheaper than fossil fuel sources when directly comparing their cost per unit of energy, more important factors of reliability and consistent generation to meet base load and peak load demands mean that we should not expect a major change in the ratio of fuel source to total electricity generated. It is likely that price volatility in the fossil fuel sector drives some increased investment in renewable sources as they offer price protection.

Up Next

So we’ve covered the basics of electric power generation in Michigan. We talked about the science and the primary sources that help keep the lights on. Next week, we are going to talk about how it gets from the plant to your house. Stay tuned.

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