How the Great Lakes Will Benefit from Governor Whitmer’s Energy Plan

Originally published October 6, 2023; updated February 29, 2024

In what is among the most comprehensive clean energy initiatives in the country, Michigan has become the first industrialized swing state to enact laws requiring 100 percent of electric power to come from carbon-free sources by 2040. The ambitious legislative agenda, fulfilling Governor Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, also increases energy efficiency standards, address energy equity in disadvantaged communities, and empowers the Michigan Public Service Commission to consider climate change, affordability, and equity in its decision-making. The passage of the bills will save Michigan ratepayers an estimated $5.5 billion through 2050.

These benefits to Michigan are on top of the energy investments flowing from the federal Inflation Reduction Act that have catalyzed an estimated over $21 billion in new investment in Michigan, helped create almost 16,000 good-paying clean energy jobs, and brought twenty-four major new clean energy manufacturing projects to Michigan – more than any other state.

But these are not the only measurable benefits that the energy transition brings to Michigan. As we celebrate Michigan’s newfound leadership in clean energy, it’s vitally important to underscore the positive impact the energy transition will have on Michigan’s water resources.

Decarbonizing Michigan’s Economy Will Dramatically Improve Water Quality

Governor Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan will not only accelerate Michigan’s clean energy transition and decarbonize our economy, it will provide long-term benefits to Michigan’s water resources.

As we retire fossil fuel-based energy sources and replace them with clean energy technologies – wind and solar power, green hydrogen, electric vehicles, and energy storage devices – we will markedly and measurably reduce the harmful impacts that producing and burning fossil fuels have on our Great Lakes, rivers and streams, and groundwater.

Wind and solar energy are infinite sources of free, clean power. Unlike fossil fuels which are finite, costly, inherently dirty, and cause billions of dollars of negative environmental and health impacts, wind and solar energy are free, clean, and with far fewer impacts to the environment and human health.

Impacts from Thermoelectric Generation

Water and energy have always been highly interdependent. Producing power uses tremendous amounts of water. From the first water wheels used to ground grain 6,000 years ago, through the Roman age of invention where water was moved great distances to irrigate crops and provide drinking water, to the production of energy from hydropower, fossil-fuel, and nuclear power plants, water has always been an essential component of energy

Electricity generated by steam from burning coal or natural gas, and nuclear fission – called thermoelectric generation – accounts for 68 percent of water use in the Great Lakes Region and 74 percent of all water use in Michigan. Thermoelectric generation causes significant, harmful, and destructive direct impacts on our water resources.

Power plants need massive amounts of cooling water to operate. Water pumped from the Great Lakes and their tributary rivers “entrain” or kills millions of fish and aquatic organisms, including early-life-stage fish, eggs, and larvae. Once heated, water released from power plants causes thermal impacts that stress and kill fish and other aquatic organisms. Warm water also can change fish populations, decrease dissolved oxygen levels, propagate algae, and alter “benthic communities” – the broad ecological biome of animals (including crustaceans and mussels), plants, and bacteria that live in the water and the lake bottom.

Impacts from Coal

Michigan’s coal plants are also responsible for the widespread pollution of our Great Lakes. Available data show that Michigan-based coal-fired plants emit approximately 3000 lbs. of mercury – a powerful neurotoxin every year. Coal plants are responsible for 57 percent of all mercury present in the Great Lakes, resulting in official health advisories cautioning the public to limit consumption of Great Lakes fish. In 2021 alone, thermoelectric power plants in Michigan also emitted 64,301 tons of sulfur dioxide, 58,284 tons of nitrogen oxide, and 55,450,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

In addition to these contaminants, coal combustion produces air emissions that contain lead, particulates, and various other heavy metals that are deposited in our lakes, rivers , and streams. Coal combustion also produces fly ash and slag, which have been deposited in unlined landfills for many decades. Recent research has revealed that of the fifty-two known coal ash landfills in Michigan, almost all are leaking heavy metals into Michigan’s groundwater.

Mining coal also consumes huge amounts of water In 2021, 50 to 59 gallons of water were used for each of the 577 million tons of coal mined.

Impacts from Oil and Gas 

There are more than 900,000 active oil and gas wells in the United States. Oil and gas production from shale formations uses 1.5 to 16 million gallons of water for each well. This water becomes contaminated with a variety of chemicals and oil and gas constituents.

Oil and gas produced from shale formations require “hydraulic fracturing,” a process using large volumes of water, chemicals, and sand pumped under high pressure to keep pore spaces open so that oil and gas can be recovered. The drilling process yields contaminated “flow-back” water, as well as naturally occurring brine that is pumped out with the oil and gas. This chemical laden water is then disposed of by pumping it back deep underground.

Burning natural gas produces emissions that include nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter – all of which inevitably find their way into Michigan’s surface waters.

Pipelines transport crude oil and gas to refineries, and refined oil and gas to their end use. Between 1998 and 2017 there were 11,758 pipeline spills in the United States that were classified as “significant” by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Included among them is the most catastrophic pipeline failure in United States history. The Enbridge pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan in July 2010, released more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into a direct tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The rupture of Enbridge Line 6B resulted in pervasive contamination and massive ecological damage to the waters and surrounding wetlands.

Another oil pipeline now threatens the world’s most valuable fresh surface water system. The 70-year old Line 5, also owned and operated by Enbridge, traverses the Straits of Mackinac at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. The free spanning underwater pipeline has been repeatedly struck by ship’s anchors and cables dragged by passing vessels have damaged the pipelines and its supports. Line 5 is uniquely vulnerable to multiple impacts that could result in irreversible environmental harm and billions of dollars of damage to the Great Lakes regional economy.

Climate Change and Michigan Waters 

We are only beginning to understand the pervasive impact climate change is having on our lakes, rivers, and other water-dependent resources. Climate change brings specific climate related impacts, risks, and challenges to the protection and management of public water resources.

The combustion of fossil fuels has raised regional temperatures 2.3 degrees since 1951. Warming temperatures destabilize lake, river, and stream ecology, altering conditions and habitat for fish and aquatic organisms. Like the oceans, the Great Lakes are absorbing excess heat. Lake Superior, despite its size, is one of the fastest warming lakes in the world with temperatures increasing 3-4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Warming temperatures are changing our weather. The National Climate Assessment forecasts both increased frequency and severity of storm events in the Great Lakes region. Increased flooding will cause sewer overflows that reach our Great Lakes, increased soil erosion; and more fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to wash into our streams and rivers.

The Energy/Water Nexus 

We can mitigate or even potentially avoid the most severe effects of climate change by implementing Governor Whitmer’s energy and climate plans. The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy cannot come soon enough.

The benefits of the proposed energy transition to our water resources are not speculative, they are measurable and based on science. Wind and solar energy are now the least expensive new energy infrastructure available worldwide. Every megawatt-hour of wind and solar energy saves 8,270 gallons of water from being used for thermal cooling.

An acre of solar panels producing electricity keeps 121 to 138 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, every year. That same acre of solar panels can power an electric vehicle 40 to 100 times farther than ethanol produced from the same acre of corn. And ethanol production can require up to 865 gallons of water for each gallon of fuel produced.

The benefits of clean energy, significant as they are, pale when compared to the harms that clean energy can help us avoid. The economics of clean energy do not include the difficult to quantify but very real aggregate cost of “negative externalities” – the harmful environmental and health impacts that flow from the use of fossil fuels.

Annual environmental and health damages linked to coal mining, processing, and combustion have been estimated at $365 billion annually (2010 dollars). The annual environmental and health damages from burning fossil fuels have been estimated at up to $970 billion annually.

Globally, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that pollution from fossil fuels cost the world’s economy more than $5.6 trillion in 2022. This amount, roughly equivalent to total annual global energy expenditures, if added to the cost of producing fossil fuels, makes the favorable economics of clean energy technologies undeniable, and an overwhelming and compelling basis to transition from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Governor Whitmer’s clean energy and climate initiatives redound with multiple benefits to public health, the environment, the business community, and Michigan citizens at large. And thanks to the Governor’s policies that are being advanced today, the largest, most extraordinary fresh surface water system in the world – our Great Lakes – will also enjoy long-term future benefits and be preserved and protected for our future generations.

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One comment on “How the Great Lakes Will Benefit from Governor Whitmer’s Energy Plan

  1. Steven Ruddell on

    Thank you Skip. This is the most comprehensive summary of the facts and supporting references on the actual impacts of burning fossil fuels on our Great Lakes water resources and why Governor Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan offers the best path forward for mitigating and/or avoiding the most severe social, economic, and environmental impacts of climate change.


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