Something else to share from the Crystal Mountain conference, Michigan’s Future: Energy, Economy and Environment.
When people discuss the technical limitations of wind power, one of the most oft-cited is the inability to store the power that wind turbines generate. So, for example, if we had great wind during the middle of the night, the turbines would spin, but the demand for electricity would be so low (everybody home sleeping), that it could go wasted. This would be a real shame the next day if winds were calm and the turbines were sitting dormant while everybody was at work, computers and machinery whirring away.
But unbeknownst to many Northern Michiganders, we have a rare asset here, about two hours south of Traverse City, that can in fact store energy from several hundred wind turbines. Though the name is very unglamorous, Ludington Pumped Storage, the facility’s function is remarkable in its simplicity and effectiveness.
Here’s what it is. First, it’s near Ludington (you might have picked up on that), and essentially it’s a 842-acre water impoundment, a reservoir. But unlike most reservoirs you might know of, this one is not filled by the flow of a river. It is filled by using electricity generated in off-peak hours (from today’s power plants) to pump water from Lake Michigan up into the reservoir. Then, during peak demand periods, the water is let out of the impoundment, running turbines, and creating electricity. When you drive U.S. 31 south of Ludington and pass that giant earthen berm on the west side of the highway, that’s what you are driving past.
The Ludington Pumped Storage facility holds 27 billion gallons of water–one of the largest such facilities in the world–and when it is generating, “can produce enough electricity to serve 1.4 million customers, which is more than double the capacity of any single unit on Consumer’s Energy’s system,” according to the company’s website.
What this means for wind power promoters in Michigan is that they can use wind power generated in off-peak hours to fill the reservoir–essentially a giant battery waiting to serve when the demand is high.
Some people wonder if Michigan should build another such facility. This would, of course, give rise to many conflicted emotions among those in Michigan’s environmental community. Do we inundate 1,000 acres of some of Michigan’s most beautiful countryside (hills are a must for this) in order to move to a smarter energy future?
Case in point is the recent high-profile land conservancy deal just south of Elberta on the Lake Michigan shore. The land had been owned by CMS with the idea that it was going to be the site for another pumped storage facility. Now it’s one of Lower Michigan’s most beautiful preserves.
Fascinating days, choices and decisions ahead.
Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine