Is a Michigan hydro pumped storage facility clean and renewable? Lawmakers, experts disagree
The Ludington Pumped Storage hydroelectric facility in western Michigan is a clean and renewable energy source that should receive credits for its ability to reduce carbon emissions, according to various state and federal lawmakers.
But amid comprehensive energy policy proposals at the federal and state levels, debate swirls over whether the operation along Lake Michigan is actually clean or renewable.
While both sides agree that the electricity generated from the 842-acre reservoir is carbon free, experts say the process of pumping the water from the lake in order to generate electricity is not.
According to the utility that operates the project, nearly 75 percent of the energy used to pump the water comes from coal and natural gas. Twenty-three percent is powered by nuclear and wind, a spokesman from Consumers Energy said.
“CO2 is emitted when the fossil fuels are burned, regardless of whether the energy is stored or not,” said Mark Barteau, director of the University of Michigan Energy Institute. “When the stored energy is consumed, no further emissions occur, although since storage and utilization are not 100 percent efficient, the carbon emissions per megawatt-hour delivered are actually larger than if the energy were used directly rather than stored.”
Construction on the Ludington Pumped Storage Facility started in 1969. It is on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, just south of the small city of Ludington. It is co-owned by Consumers and DTE Energy and operated by Consumers.
The facility’s generating capacity is 1,872 MW, enough to power a city of 1.4 million people, according to Consumers. Water from Lake Michigan is pumped uphill during low-demand periods and stored in the reservoir equivalent in size to two million backyard swimming pools. During high-demand periods, the water is released back downhill, powering turbines and generating electricity.
The facility is widely regarded as an important system for saving ratepayers money. The disagreement surfaces over how it will impact the state’s emission-reduction goals.
“We can’t eliminate the CO2 emissions from our coal plants by storing the energy, whether by pumped hydro or other means, and using it later. What matters is how the energy gets generated in the first place,” Barteau said.