Downtown Lansing, Michigan.
Downtown Lansing, Michigan's capital city. Credit: Davidshane0 / Creative Commons

Correction: An expert from the World Resource Institute summarized models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for decarbonizing electricity. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the presenter’s remarks as a recommendation for how Michigan should aim to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Correction: Nick Assendelft is a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. An earlier version of this story misspelled his name.

Michigan environmental groups say a recent presentation meant to help inform the state’s plan for reaching net-zero emissions placed too much emphasis on unproven technology and unfairly characterized a 100% renewable energy target as too expensive and unreliable.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recently convened Michigan Council on Climate Solutions is aiming to develop a plan by December that will help chart the state’s course to net-zero. The council is an advisory board Whitmer created during a series of late 2020 executive orders and includes 14 governor-appointed members. 

During the council’s late February opening presentation, an expert from nonprofit research group World Resource Institute summarized four Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “pathways” to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and net-negative emissions beyond that. The pathways describe scenarios in which between 63% and 81% of electricity is generated from renewables, with nuclear, biomass, carbon capture and other technologies close the remaining gap. 

That range is well short of the 100% renewables target that many state environmental groups are calling. They also oppose the inclusion of carbon capture, which they allege doesn’t reduce emissions and allows industry to continue polluting communities around companies’ factories. 

“If we truly care about ending systemic oppression of [environmental justice] communities, we cannot afford to be unambitious,” said Juan Jhong Chung, policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, which represents about 50 environmental groups statewide. 

The presentation highlighted “aggressive” carbon dioxide removal strategies that move beyond forest and soil sequestration programs like that which Michigan recently announced for a small section of state forest. Those include direct air capture and storage, a method that would use technology and machinery that can pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in the ground or construction materials.

It also described how an increase in biogas, which involves generating energy by burning wood or organic matter, then capturing and storing carbon emitted during the process, or capturing gas off of landfills and similar waste. 

The presentation cautioned against aiming for a 100% renewable-powered grid, which would be as “technically possible” but “very expensive” and less reliable because wind and sun don’t provide a consistent source of generation and would require significant integration costs.

“Some people think that we can build this electric supply completely from renewables,” said Karl Hausker, a senior fellow with the World Resources Institute’s climate program, “and it may be technically feasible to do that, but most mainstream analysis indicates that would be very expensive and you might encounter more reliability problems if you tried to run a grid almost entirely on wind and solar.” 

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But Jhong Chung said that the national and international analysis shared in the World Resources Institute presentation focused on the cost of investing in clean energy and ignored the potential economic benefits from the transition.

“If you take into account all the economic gains that could be made from transitioning to a full renewable economy, there’s benefits not only for the environment and EJ communities, but also our pockets,” he said. “It does mean we have to invest more upfront, but that’s a good thing, because our communities need investment now more than ever.” 

Climate Solutions Council member Charlotte Jameson, program director for legislative affairs, energy, and drinking water policy with the Michigan Environmental Council, cautioned that the World Resource Institute’s presentation was only one step in a long process. 

“We do need to be moving very rapidly toward carbon-free generation,” she said. “Over the next 10 years, if we’re not moving aggressively to decarbonize the power sector, then we’re really up a creek with no paddle.” 

Jhong Chung noted that the technology for some carbon dioxide removal strategies highlighted in the World Resource Institute presentation doesn’t yet exist in commercial form, and technologies that remove carbon at point sources like smokestacks haven’t been successful. 

He pointed to the recent failures at the Petra Nova plant, which in 2017 was billed as a test case for point source carbon removal technology. It suffered frequent outages and only captured 7% of the plant’s emissions, and the carbon dioxide it captured was injected into the ground so more fossil fuels could be extracted. 

“In the end, you output more carbon into the air than you remove … so it is absolutely not a solution,” Jhong Chung said. 

Jameson also expressed skepticism about making carbon removal a central part of the state’s plan. She called the science behind the processes “unproven” and said that a plan that includes carbon removal is “more likely to be less effective.”  

“I don’t think there’s been a really successful carbon capture project, it’s expensive, and we’re pretty dubious of that technology,” she said. “To me, the rush to embrace that technology is a little too early, so it would be much more effective to build out wind and solar in the near term.” 

The presentation is just the beginning of the planning process, and will help inform the final plan and recommendations submitted to the governor, said Nick Assendfelt, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy, Great Lakes, and Environment, which oversees the council. 

The presentation is just the beginning of the planning process, and will help inform the final plan and recommendations submitted to the governor, said Nick Assendelft, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, which oversees the council.

“The presentation … is part of the council’s thorough, in-depth analysis of the wide-ranging issues that will be taken under consideration during the development of the MI Healthy Climate Plan,” he said in a statement. The council’s next meeting is at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, May 25, and is open to the public.

Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter based in Detroit.