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Blowin‘ in the wind

Anne Stanton - June 28th, 2010
Blowin’ in the Wind: Coupling wind power & natural gas may provide answer to region’s energy search
By Anne Stanton
Under dark storm clouds, reporters last week visited a wind farm at
Stoney Corners outside of Cadillac where graceful turbines dwarfed the
barns and silos dotting the countryside.
The event in the quiet McBain countryside was a ribbon cutting on
behalf of Traverse City Light and Power, a small public utility that
will buy energy from a total of five wind turbines. The 10.25
megawatts of electricity will count toward the state’s requirement of
10% renewable energies by the year 2015.
TCL&P has complained that it’s been given precious little credit for
its groundbreaking foray into wind power. Perhaps that’s because wind
power was overshadowed by the concurrent announcement of a proposed
10-megawatt biomass gasification plant in the heart of Traverse City
several months ago.
Now after months of citizen protest, biomass appears to be off the
table. After the ribbon cutting, TCL&P Executive Director Ed Rice
informally told reporters that biomass is going “on the back burner”
due to public opposition, including a petition drive to put all future
utility TCL&P plant proposals up for a public vote.  “Our board and
staff didn’t feel we could garner enough public support. The next step
is to look at natural gas, including our existing plant in Kalkaska
County, although biomass is not fully discarded,” Rice said.

WIND PIONEER
The  Stoney Corners wind farm is the brainchild of Marty Lagina,
founder of Heritage Sustainable Energy, which plans to install wind
farms across the state. A commercial wind pioneer, his wind field is
Northern Michigan’s largest and will grow to 19 wind turbines by the
end of this year. But even he concedes that wind power can’t provide
“base” or continual 24/7 energy. Turbines only deliver electricity
when the wind is blowing, and storage technologies are currently too
expensive or impractical.
Lagina’s solution: combine wind with a “smart” natural gas plant,
which—when invented—could detect wind when it’s blowing or not blowing
and then make up the shortfall.  The beauty of this energy
partnership, said Lagina, is that the resultant air pollution and
carbon dioxide emissions from such a “hybrid” plant would be a small
fraction of other alternate base load plants (such as coal, oil, and
biomass.)
Perhaps not out of sheer coincidence, the wind farm at McBain is
situated where a network of gas pipes came together, marked by two
black towers, overseeing the wind turbines like sentries. Plus this
approach would allow wind to become a major factor in the energy
equation--right now, wind provides only a tiny fraction of power
nationally.

FRACKING
Here’s the rub. Natural gas, formerly too expensive to consider as a
replacement for coal, is now an option because of vast new supplies
opened up by a  production technique called hydraulic fracturing (also
called hydro-fracking or fracking). Record natural gas supplies are
opening up across the country, including the Gulf Coast (home, of
course, to the BP disaster), the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian
basin, and the productive Marcellus shale in the New York region,
where some citizens are pushing hard for a ban.
Northern Michigan has also come into play after a test well in
Missaukee County produced promising results. In May, the state
auctioned land for drilling options in seven Northern Michigan
counties, and the bidding went nuts. Chesapeake Energy Corporation,
based in Oklahoma City, paid thousands of dollars per acre for an
option to lease for drilling in what’s known as the Collingwood Shale,
far exceeding previous record highs of $200 an acre.
 And, these counties aren’t the only area of interest. In the last few
weeks, landowners in Leelanau County have been approached by gasmen
asking if they’d be interested in leasing their property for drilling.
Yet fracking these deeper natural gas reserves has raised intense
environmental and health concerns. Last week, an HBO documentary,
“Gasland,” portrayed several Colorado homeowners who could literally
light up their faucet water thanks to contamination from natural gas
drilling. An Ohio home blew up when gas-contaminated water filled
their basement.
LAX REGULATION
Fracking involves a process which breaks open rock using tremendous
pressure from more than 500 chemicals, some toxic, and a million
gallons of water. Josh Fox, who made the documentary, explained that
lax regulation is to blame. Former Vice President Dick Cheney exempted
gas and oil companies from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2004.
In this interview, Lagina  talks about this issue, along with his
overall vision for delivering energy in a world that’s finding it hard
to move away from coal and oil to avoid potentially catastrophic
global warming. Other viewpoints will be presented next week.

NE: When you talk about wind, you also talk about natural gas in the
same breath. Yet, of course, it’s not without controversy. I’ve been
receiving emails from people who are deeply concerned about this
fracking business. Are they going to use this technology up here in
Northern Michigan?
Lagina: Yes, most likely.

NE: So my first question is, does Michigan exempt natural gas drillers
from the Safe Drinking Water Act?
Lagina: No, drillers are required to protect the drinking water in
Michigan. The state has incredibly high standards and tough sanctions.
I honestly believe they’re  the toughest in the country.  Fracking the
Collingwood Shale in the areas recently leased for oil and gas
development has just about zero chance of impacting a fresh water
well.  Hydraulic fracturing technology is now very well understood. I
cannot say categorically that there is zero risk to fresh water
because human error is always a factor in anything we do, but it’s
very close to zero in any substantive sense.

NE: Now you’ve been in the oil and natural gas business for 30 years.
You started out with Howard Walker, right?
Lagina: Right, a company called Terra Energy. Craig Tester, too, and
he’s still with me.  Mr. Walker left the company in 1986 and started
his own business.  While I was in law school, we started the company
and by the time I got my law degree, I decided not to practice and
instead go into oil and natural gas. We had figured out a way to drill
for natural gas in the Antrim Shale—up until that time, it was
considered a nuisance gas that wouldn’t make enough money.  We had the
largest number of gas wells in Northern Michigan. The wells were
shallow, which is why the state imposed strict regulations.  By the
way, there are approximately 8,000 existing wells into the Antrim
Shale formation—all of which were hydraulically fractured.  Fracking
is not new. We sold the gas wells in 1995 to CMS Energy. Now 909% of
my effort and money are going into wind.

NE: Are you still in the oil and gas business?
Lagina: Yes, via non-operated joint ventures. I  am a past president
of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association (MOGA), and I’m still on the
board.  I think it’s important that your readers know that they can
get factual information about the oil and gas business from MOGA.

NE: The name of your business has the word, sustainable. So why
natural gas at this time when we are trying to get away from fossil
fuels?
Lagina: I don’t think this combination of wind and natural gas that
I’m talking about is the final answer, but it will buy us 20 years.
If we can substantially lower emissions with hybrid wind/gas plants
for many years, it will allow the zero carbon technologies time to be
perfected.  I am absolutely sold on the combination of wind and
natural gas. I want to build an on-site gas plant at the wind farm and
I think the entire industry should go that way. When it comes to
carbon emissions, coal is the worst, oil is next, and natural gas is
the least. That’s because coal is virtually100%, pure carbon with some
non-combustive material. With natural gas, you have one carbon
molecule for every four parts hydrogen.

NE: So you get a lot of water and lower carbon emissions?
Lagina: Right.

NE: I know the price for natural gas has long been an issue,
especially because the price can unexpectedly skyrocket.
Lagina: Yeah, but there’s been a sea change in supply, I think that so
much new natural gas supply is coming online from onshore sources that
long-term natural gas contracts are now available. I really feel that
with a long-term contract, natural gas and wind combined is on par, or
maybe even less, in terms of cost, with wind alone.  But, the huge
benefit is that by combining the two, you can remove wind’s
variability and create base load, ultra low emission plants.
A local environmentalist also suggested that our planned hybrid plant
could (at least in part) be fueled by bio gas from farm waste.  We
think that could be a great idea, and we are seriously looking into
it. Our contract with TCL&P for wind is 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour.
That’s a 20-year contract with a 2% annual escalator. That’s
wholesale. There’s an add-on for transportation so consumers will be
paying somewhat more than that.
The best thing about wind alone is that the “fuel” is not subject to
price fluctuations. And  there’s no way  to get cleaner energy. But, I
also think you need to pair natural gas and wind together at site,
because there are problems when you have too much pure wind. That’s
what’s going on in Texas, where wind turbines are starting to provide
a significant supply of electricity.

NE: What’s wrong with that?
Lagina: You have the law of unintended consequences. When the wind is
strong, the system operator for the grid has to balance the wind with
other sources. You can’t turn off a coal or a nuclear plant—they’re
not designed to be turned off, but you can turn down a natural gas
plant relatively quickly, so that means the existing natural gas
plants in Texas have become the sacrificial lambs.  Clearly, if you
are trying to reduce carbon emissions, this is the wrong result. The
only way currently to avoid this (in my opinion) is to balance wind
and natural gas at the same site and feed it into the grid. That way
the wind farm becomes a base-load plant.

NE: Have you approached Traverse City Light and Power with the idea?
Lagina: Yes.

NE: What did they say?
Lagina: They’re interested and are going to look into it and get back with me.

NE: It seems the biggest drawbacks to wind turbines are killing birds
and aesthetics.
Lagina: Birds, in my opinion, are a non-issue if you choose the right
place. In every case, we do a bird study to make sure there’s
negligible impact. The bird issue came up with one of the first wind
farms in Altimont Pass in California—a huge canyon which happened to
be a raptor flight path. The wind turbines had lattice towers, which
the raptors used as perches. When they took off, a blade would come up
from behind and kill them. We don’t use these. With our turbines,
there’s no place to perch. Do you know what the true killer of birds
is? Windows, followed closely by domestic cats. Cats kill an enormous
number of birds. In fact, the Audubon Society has come out strongly in
favor of wind power.

NE: Has siting been a problem for you?
Lagina: Not at all. We have wind towers here in McBain and we’re
trying to build on the Garden Peninsula. We’ll only site wind turbines
where the community in general is supportive.
My wife thinks wind turbines are beautiful. I think public acceptance
of wind farms is much higher now that people know the alternatives.
So far, we’ve had virtually no issues here in McBain. Prior to
construction, we took some community leaders to Europe and had them
look at the wind farms there. They had no problem with them. McBain is
a farming community. Farmers, in general, are practical people. They
understand you can’t produce something without some impact.  Their
tractors rumble, they use pesticides. They’re more accepting of
impacts.
NE: What about noise?
Lagina: Check it out for yourself. They’re actually quite quiet. The
only problem I’ve seen is occasionally with flicker.  Sometimes if the
sun hits just right when the wind is from a particular direction, you
can get a temporary strobe effect in the house. But the effect is rare
and temporary and we have software to fix that if it becomes a real
issue.

NE: How many people are you employing in McBain?
Lagina: Right now, hundreds with the turbine construction. After
they’re built, maybe six to 10 people directly, but there’s going to
be a lot of jobs related to the wind turbines—snow plowers,
inspectors, electricians.

NE: You’re also involved in attempting to fund and build a biomass
plant in Mancelona.  Why biomass?
Lagina: I see biomass as having a place. The energy issue is so big;
we have to use whatever sources are prudent. The two issues I see with
biomass are siting and sustainability.  I think proper siting with
community acceptance is a high priority for all energy generation
projects.  The community at Mancelona is supporting a local biomass
plant.

NE: Right, but bottom line, biomass plants emit the same amount as
carbon per unit of energy as coal.
Lagina:  Well, that depends in a very real sense on your time horizon.
I look at it this way. A tree sequesters carbon while it is growing.
Eventually, it dies and releases the carbon through decay processes
and emits carbon over  many years. Or you can burn it, and it will
emit the same amount of carbon as it would when it decays.

NE: But you’re talking several minutes compared to  many, many years.
I’m thinking this whole carbon issue is immediate, so the timing makes
a difference. Plus there are health issues people are extremely
concerned about.
Lagina: We don’t disagree. The whole biomass situation is complicated
from a scientific standpoint.  Biomass should be a small part of the
overall energy  package. In Mancelona, if we are successful, we are
only going to use 7 percent of the annual growth from the harvest
area. It’s like using 7 percent of the interest only and none of the
principle. Trees are a very emotional topic, and rightly so, but
properly sited with strict sustainability standards, I think, biomass
has its place.

NE: It seems like every form of energy has its drawbacks.
Lagina: That’s true.

 
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