October 21, 2020

"I Want To Move The Needle"

Crystal Mountain CEO Jim MacInnes Is A Clean Energy Leader, But You Won't Find Solar Panels At His Resort
By Patrick Sullivan | Sept. 26, 2020

There is likely no business leader in northern Michigan more outspoken about clean energy than Jim MacInnes, CEO and Co-Owner of Crystal Mountain.

Yet when you visit the 1,500-acre ski and golf resort near Thompsonville, very little evidence of that is in sight. Roofs are not festooned with solar panels; there is no wind turbine towering above the ski runs. MacInnes hasn’t done the things that could signal most loudly his dedication to eliminating sources of carbon in the atmosphere.

MacInnes believes that would be posturing and an insignificant contribution to a cause that he holds dear. He’d rather focus on bigger things.

“People always ask me, when are you going to have a wind turbine? I don’t know if we ever will, really,” MacInnes said. “I want to move the needle. I don’t just want to say, hey, look, I’ve got a wind turbine.”

So, behind the scenes, MacInnes works to move the needle by serving as the governor-appointed chair of the Michigan Utility Consumer Participation Board, where he nudges utilities away from fossil fuels. He lobbies Cherryland Electric Cooperative to expand their renewables portfolio.

But MacInnes would really rather not talk about that right now. He is more interested in talking about the nation’s power grid and how it needs to be overhauled to accommodate renewable energy producers.

Today, the United States is essentially three power grids: the east, the west and Texas. The east and the west are separated by something dissecting the country called a “seam” that bottlenecks power transfer back and forth and hinders power distribution. MacInnes wants people to know that this system needs to be overhauled, and transmission lines need to be improved, so that the nation can use clean energy smartly and take advantage of wind where there is wind and sun where there is sun.

“The technology is here,” he said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, hey, can we do this?’ It’s here. It can be done.”

Northern Express talked to MacInnes about what can be done in Michigan to make a power grid that can distribute clean energy.

NORTHERN EXPRESS: You don’t have solar panels or a turbine here at the resort. Tell me about that.
JIM MACINNES: I used to develop power plants. That’s what I did for a living before coming to Crystal Mountain, so, I am a renewable energy developer at heart. Of course, we have a lot of responsibilities just taking care of our basic ski business and golf and the resort, which takes a lot of capital in itself, but I also feel that I’d rather spend my time advocating for clean energy with utilities and in other venues. Take for example our utility Cherryland Electric, which has been quite progressive. They are providing us with 60 percent zero-carbon electricity. Wolverine Power is their power supplier and Wolverine provides power to eight different co-ops. So, they’re providing all the co-ops with 60 percent zero-carbon electricity. So rather than saying, oh I have a wind turbine, if I spend my time advocating for larger-scale clean energy deployment, that really is a better use of my time and my money. It’s hard for us to make a difference, even at Crystal Mountain. In the end we really need to move the needle.

EXPRESS: Is 60 percent renewable where you are at here at Crystal Mountain
MACINNES: Wolverine Power, which supplies all the co-ops up here, they are at 62 percent zero-carbon electricity, in part because of their use of imports using transmission.

EXPRESS: In recent years, the co-ops have also made a deal with a coal plant in Ohio that I know people are upset about, and some people are critical of co-ops for leaning too heavily on fossil fuel. What do you say about that?
MACINNES: I think historically they have. I think they should get away from fossil fuels because we need to focus more on zero carbon. If you look at their long-term history, they’ve done a lot with fossil fuels. But they are moving away. I know some other co-ops that are still using coal. But they used to have like 45 percent coal, 40 percent, but it’s down to like 18 percent now. It’s not something you can just flip the switch, if you want us to have reliable electricity. You can’t really flip the switch and shut coal off, but you need to deploy renewables and back down from coal as quickly as possible.

EXPRESS: I know you’re a proponent of the modernization of electricity transmission system in this country. Is there something that could happen locally or in the state that would make a difference to that end?
MACINNES: Yes. In fact, something is happening statewide. The Michigan Public Service Commission has asked MCSO, the Mid-Continent System Operator, which controls the 15-state grid for the Midwest, they have gone to them and said we want to study the capacity import limits of our wires in Michigan that connect to other states. It’s like an electricity interstate. Because right now, the ability to import clean power from other states is quite limited by the transmission system. So, they’ve asked MCSO to study what steps Michigan can take. The study will be done at the end of 2020 and tell us what we can do with our transmission to be able to import more energy into the state, so we don’t have to build more fossil fuel plants.

EXPRESS: How would that work?
MACINNES: There’s something called an “interconnection queue.” Let’s say I’m a power plant developer and I would like to connect with you, and I want to build a 200-megawatt wind project. I will go through various hoops to get in line in the interconnection queue so I can connect to the grid. And so, if you look at the MSCO interconnection queue, it’s something like 95 percent clean energy that wants to connect. All these projects want to connect but they can’t because there’s not enough transmission to facilitate this.

EXPRESS: I think most people would be surprised by that because the common notion is that we’re hanging onto fossil fuel because it’s cheaper than renewable energy.
MACINNES: Renewable has gotten so much cheaper. I’ve watched it. You can get solar energy now for two cents and wind for two or three cents a kilowatt hour. It is more intermittent. Every power plant, even nuclear plants, is intermittent. They have to shut down sometimes. Renewable plants are more intermittent, so what you need to do is share the energy around and balance it, move it around using transmission, if it’s not windy here but it’s sunny there. What’s happening is the market is speaking. All of these renewable projects want to connect. And there needs to be more transmission built in order to move it around.

MacInnes, at this point in the interview, dove deep into some improvements that could be made to improve the grid in Michigan. An electrical engineer at heart, MacInnes used complicated terminology to explain how existing transmission lines could be made more efficient at a relatively nominal cost compared to the cost of constructing new transmission lines.

EXPRESS: Do you see this stuff happening in Michigan? Is it something you’re working on? Who would pay for it?
MACINNES: Ratepayers would pay for it. I am the chair of the Michigan Utility Consumer Participation Board. We are the only state-sanctioned organization that represents residential rate payers in electric or gas utility rate cases. So, what we do is we have funding – about $700,000 a year – and we fund organizations that intervene in utility rate cases, like when the utility says they want to build a new gas turbine plant, and we say, ‘Well, why don’t you do this? Have you looked at this as an alternative to that fossil fuel plant?’ We say, ‘How come you want to run your coal plant longer? Why don’t you shut it down sooner and build solar panels?’ And we fund experts to do the math on why that would be better for rate payers.

EXPRESS: Do you have examples of problems that come from our inefficient grid in Michigan?
MACINNES: Do you remember when the governor said to turn down your thermostat? That was during the polar vortex. The polar vortex put a lot of pressure on the gas and electric systems, because the more you burn gas for electricity, the less gas that’s available for people to heat their homes. So, having this really cold temperature affected the whole gas system and electric system in the state. One of the problems is that right now, Michigan has limited import capacity. In other words, ‘Oh hey, we’ve kind of run out of capacity here, how about if we get some from Illinois or wherever?’ We can’t. Right now, we are limited on our capacity imports, although that’s gonna change. That will change. We have to. We could have blackouts here. So, the utilities and the governor, and the legislature, they’re going to have to work together to fix this so that we have reliable electricity. One of the things that you do to make sure you have reliable electricity is you make sure you have plenty of pathways that are open.

EXPRESS: Are you satisfied with where you are here at Crystal Mountain with renewable energy?
MACINNES: No. No. Not at all. We try to do things several different ways. It’s not just producing electricity; it’s how you consume it. Production is just one part of the story. The other part is controlling demand. Consumers Energy is really working on that, which is a very good thing. When we buy a transformer, we buy an efficient transformer, because even though we might not be running the lift, it takes a certain amount of electricity to energize that transformer. When we buy lights, we buy LED lights to reduce the lighting demand. That’s a big one. That’s the low-hanging fruit. We have five EV charging stations. Our security vehicles are electric cars. I drive an EV. Our new Inn building, a $12 million project, we heat it and cool it using a closed-loop geothermal heat pump system, meaning it comes from electricity.

EXPRESS: But you started out to say that you’re not satisfied with where you are yet.
MACINNES: I’d like to be 100 percent. I’d like to get out of fossil fuels. You know, we burn propane. We heat a lot of our existing buildings using propane; we heat the condos using propane. I’d like to not burn fossil fuels. We’ve been doing it forever. I’ve been here 35 years. We had propane when I came. And we’ve expanded over the years our propane system. I would like to build more buildings that don’t use propane. I’d also like to have electric snow groomers. There are some out there…There’s a lot of talk about, ‘Yeah, I want to build solar panels on my house and put in battery storage,’ which is great, I’m all for that. But that’s just a small part of the solution.

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