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Our Renewable Future

A conversation with energetic Skip Pruss

Patrick Sullivan - December 30th, 2013  

Stanley “Skip” Pruss is an advocate of renewable energy with an impressive résumé -- he served as director of the Department of Environmental Quality under Gov. Granholm. Later, in her administration, Pruss was director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and Michigan’s Chief Energy Officer, where he was responsible for designing and implementing Michigan’s clean energy economy diversification efforts.

Today he splits his time between Lansing, where he is co-founder of 5 Lakes Energy LLC, and his home in Northport.

Last year, Pruss saw the 25x25 state ballot initiative -- a measure that would have required energy producers to produce at least 25 percent renewable energy by 2025 -- get trounced by voters in the state.

There is no new initiative planned in 2014, but that doesn’t mean Pruss isn’t busy. The Express sat down with him to talk about the future of renewable energy in Michigan, Northern Michigan’s clean energy economy, and his Christmas light display.

Northern Express: Since the 25x25 proposal got rejected by voters in 2012, is anything on the horizon for 2014 or beyond?

Skip Pruss: As I’m sure you well know, the governor had this series of public meetings on a series of questions -- more than a hundred questions -- relating to different energy issues. That process culminated with the issuance of draft reports for public comment on renewable energy, on energy optimization, on transmission issues. And now all four final reports are out, so that work should provide the administration and hopefully the legislature with credible, hard data that should inform policy on an ongoing basis.

The governor’s office has been adamant in saying that this is an honest process and I think by virtually any metric, that one would apply. It was work well done. The ultimate question is, to what purpose?

Express: How do you assess Michigan’s clean energy economy right now?

Pruss: I would characterize it as being one of opportunity. In Michigan generally, we have renewable energy portfolio standards that have been an outstanding success. Our utilities are ahead of schedule in implementation.

The cost of this implementation, which if you look back, when the legislation was passed, was expected to be in the neighborhood of $6 billion, has really been $2 billion, so it’s come in at one third the cost. I was intimately involved in these negotiations on the legislation. Utilities were skeptical that we could get to 10 percent by 2015. They were suggesting at the time that 7 percent was more realistic. We’re meeting 10 percent easily.

The clean energy technologies are much more economically efficient than we anticipated. So all of that is good.

With all that success, the real answer to your question is, what we’ve done is really quite tepid, by comparative analysis to other states, other countries. We have so much more opportunity, and that’s really a shame, because we have strengths here in Michigan that other states don’t have, in terms of advanced manufacturing capacity, in terms of engineering capacity, in terms of material science, in terms of collaborations between large corporations that have the resources to accelerate the evolution of clean-energy technologies.

We have all of those things. What we don’t have is policy to advance it. And policy matters. Policy is very important.

Express: What does a Northern Michigan clean-energy economy look like?

Pruss: What’s interesting in Northern Michigan is we have, I think, an interesting demographic here. We have, generally speaking, more educated people, more engaged people. It seems like we have more people and more organizations who are inclined to invest their time and resources in trying to be more energy efficient. One of the things that we hope to do is a solarization project for northwestern Michigan, first centered on the wineries.

There are other states who are deploying every quarter more than a hundred times more solar PV than Michigan. More than a hundred times. We’re a top-five state in solar jobs. We’re a bottom five-state in solar deployment.

And we have the opportunity to change all of that, because solar energy is becoming so cheap that residential homeowners and commercial enterprises are now suddenly confronted with the reality that now or in the very near future they will be able to deploy renewable energy systems and produce energy at the same cost or less than grid-delivered electrons. And that’s very exciting. And northwest Michigan is a place where that can happen first.

Express: There’s a lot of talk about the prospect of renewable energy being a great source of new jobs. Is that happening? Can a regular person who is looking at changing careers or trying to decide what to study in school get a job if they go into renewable energy?

Pruss: The opportunity, if it isn’t there today, certainly will be there tomorrow.

The deployment of renewable energy, becoming increasingly more energy efficient, is inevitable. You ask any expert. Ask any member of the Michigan Public Service Commission. Our three commissioners. Ask the staff. Look to energy experts. Even look to the fossil fuel multinational corporations. By the literature, by the projections out there, we’re going to be doing more and more of this. It is the future. It’s absolutely true.

Let me make a particular point on this, because if you just look at the last four years nationally, what has happened, it’s truly remarkable. We have tripled the amount of wind energy in the last four years in the United States. The costs have come down. The efficiency of the wind turbines have gone up with longer blades and taller towers. So that’s a huge success story.

With regard to solar energy, in four years we have increased the amount of solar in the United States by a factor of 10, and today a solar PV module costs one percent of what it cost in 1985. Four years ago we had 400,000 LED lights deployed in the United States. Today we have 20 million.

These are I think important metrics and it shows where all of this is going. That said, even as a country, we’re doing far less than our European counterparts.

Express: What do you think is the future of offshore wind development on Lake Michigan?

Pruss: That’s a really interesting question.

We have a huge amount of wind resources in the Great Lakes and all of the issues that are issues with respect to onshore wind, issues like vibration and noise and flicker from the sun reflecting off the turbine blades, those kinds of issues -- which are controllable onshore and we’re dealing with -- none of those issues exist for offshore wind.

The biggest impediment to offshore wind, well, there are two -- one is the economics, because it’s definitely more expensive at this point in time, the other is aesthetics. The good news about aesthetics is that wind energy in the Great Lakes can be deployed in such a way where aesthetics really diminish as an issue or become nonexistent.

For instance, in Lake Michigan we have something called the Lake Michigan plateau, which is the middle of Lake Michigan, which is a shallow area where we could deploy wind farms out there and they would essentially not be visible from either Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana or Michigan. There’s a tremendous amount of power out there. The biggest hurdle, other than politics and lack of policy, is economics. It’s more expensive now. But here’s the reality of energy economics -- the price of wind energy, solar energy, is coming down dramatically every year. And the cost of fossil fuels are going up.

Express: What about natural gas? Pruss: Well, the wholesale price of natural gas has gone up, depending on where you are in the country, between 50 percent and 150 percent in the last year.

The problem with natural gas is price volatility. If the producers of natural gas do what they want to do -- what they not unreasonably need to do as an industry -- is increase the price of natural gas; commodify the price so there is an international price, just like there is for oil and petroleum fuels. Then natural gas won’t be cheap in the future. And that’s not an unreasonable goal from the perspective of the industry.

The economics of fuel-less, clean-energy technologies are incredibly compelling. And the disparity in cost between clean energy technologies and fossil fuel technologies will only grow in the future. There’s no question that that will occur. The gap between the cost of those technologies will increase in the future.

Express: What are the biggest differences between living in Northport and living in Lansing?

Pruss: Proximity to water. Lansing is, I think, as far as you can get from the Great Lakes in Michigan. Northport embraces the lakes and is a spectacularly beautiful place to live. That’s something that we in Michigan don’t realize and maybe it’s a secret we want to keep, but to 99.9 percent of world’s population, the notion of freshwater oceans is something literally beyond their comprehension. People don’t appreciate what we have. What we have is a globally unique resource.

Express: How many Christmas lights do you have strung around your house?

Pruss: We have only LED lights on our tree. Which is up.

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