Tag: climate change mitigation

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.


Evergreen Collaborative, The Michigan Clean Energy Framework, https://5lakesenergy.com/wp content/uploads/2023/08/MI-Clean-Energy-Framework-report.pdf
Climate Power, One Year of Our Clean Energy Boom, July 25, 2023 https://climatepower.us/wp-content/uploads/sites/23/2023/07/Clean-Energy-Boom-Anniversary-Report-1.pdf 
Great Lakes Commission, Annual Report of the Great Lakes Regional Water Use Database, 2021  https://waterusedata.glc.org/pdf/2021-Water-Use-Report-FINAL.pdf 
NRDC, Power Plant Cooling and Associated Impacts: The Need to Modernize U.S. Power Plants and Protect Our  Water Resources and Aquatic Ecosystems, April 2014 https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/power-plant cooling-IB.pdf 
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 2005 Estimates of Anthropogenic Mercury Air Emissions in  Michigan, November 2011 https://www.michigan.gov/media/Project/Websites/egle/Documents/Reports/AQD/mercury/2005-michigan-anthropogenic-mercury inventory.pdf?rev=b56f9f929bad4c229f36f6639b3f07b2 
EPA, Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury, Accessed September 9, 2023 https://www.epa.gov/mercury/health effects-exposures-mercury 
NRDC, Poisoning the Great Lakes: Mercury Emissions from Coal-Fired Power Plants In the Great Lakes Region,  June 2012 https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/poisoning-the-great-lakes.pdf 
U.S. Energy Information Administration, November 10, 2022 https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/michigan/
Earth Justice, Toxic Coal Ash in Michigan: Addressing Coal Plants’ Hazardous Legacy, May 3, 2023  https://earthjustice.org/feature/coal-ash-states/michigan#:~:text=Michigan%20utilities%20operate%2030%20regulated,of%20the%20state’s%20regulated %20dumpsites
USGS, Methods for Estimating Water Withdrawals for Mining in the United States, 2005  https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2009/5053/pdf/sir2009-5053.pdf 
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Coal Explained, Accessed October 9, 2023  https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/coal/how-much-coal-is-left.php#:~:text=Based%20on%20U.S.%20coal%20production,would%20last%20about%2021%20years
U.S. Energy Information Administration, The Distribution of U.S. Oil and Natural Gas Wells by Production Rate  December 2022 https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/wells/pdf/full_report.pdf 
USGS, How much water does the typical hydraulically fractured well require? Accessed October 9, 2023  https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-much-water-does-typical-hydraulically-fractured-well-require?qt news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products 
EPA, Natural Gas, Accessed October 9, 2023 https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch01/final/c01s04.pdf
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/data-and-statistics/pipeline/pipeline-incident-20-year-trends  
National Transportation Safety Board, Accident Report, Enbridge Incorporated Hazardous Liquid Pipeline  Rupture and Release Marshall, Michigan July 25, 2010 https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/PAR1201.pdf 
Petoskey News-Review, History shows record of multiple Straits anchor strikes, May 16, 2019 https://www.petoskeynews.com/story/news/local/2019/05/16/history-shows-record-of-multiple-straits-anchor-strikes/44233105/ 
Enbridge, Inc., Investigation into Disturbances to Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac in May and June of 2020,  August 21, 2020  https://onedrive.live.com/?authkey=%21ANaLBWlYH%2DsOquY&cid=ED235B80C2B9171B&id=ED235B80C2B9171 B%2126489&parId=ED235B80C2B9171B%216332&o=OneUp 
Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments https://glisa.umich.edu/climate-change-in-the-great-lakes-region-references/ 
Phys.Org, Lake Superior is among the fastest-warming lakes on the planet. Climate change may be the culprit,  October 22, 2021 https://phys.org/news/2021-10-lake-superior-fastest-warming-lakes-planet.html
Utility Dive, Renewables would provide cheaper energy than 99% of US coal plants and catalyze a just energy  transition, February 9. 2023 https://www.utilitydive.com/news/renewables-cheaper-energy-than-99-percent-of us-coal-plants-just-energy-transition/642393/ 
NREL, A Retrospective Analysis of the Benefits and Impacts of U.S. Renewable Portfolio Standards, January 2016  https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy16osti/65005.pdf 
Columbia Climate School, Solar Panels Reduce CO2 Emissions More Per Acre Than Trees — and Much More Than  Corn Ethanol, October 26, 2022 https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/10/26/solar-panels-reduce-co2-emissions-more-per-acre-than-trees-and-much-more-than-corn-ethanol/ 
Columbia Climate School, Ethanol’s Impacts on Our Water Resources, March 21, 2011  https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2011/03/21/ethanol%e2%80%99s-impacts-on-our-water-resources/
Epstein, P., et al, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School, February 17, 2011  https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05890.x#:~:text=These%20costs%20are%20external%20to,of%20a%20trillion%20dollars%20annually
Shindell, D., The social cost of atmospheric release, February 25, 2015 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-015-1343-0#/page-1 
International Monetary Fund, IMF Fossil Fuel Subsidies Data: 2023 Update, August 24, 2023 https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2023/08/22/IMF-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-Data-2023-Update-537281#:~:text=Globally%2C%20fossil%20fuel%20subsidies%20were,warming%20and%20local%20air%20pollution

One-Two Punch Clobbers Southeast Michigan: Climate Change and Failing Sewage Systems

Detroit flooding photo courtesy Detroit Metro Times.

A monster rainstorm on June 26 dumped more than 6 inches of rain on Detroit in about 6 hours. The downpour flooded and closed Interstate-94, stranding motorists in high water, and caused widespread sewage backups in city residences. It is a consequence of climate change and a failure by government to invest in infrastructure, Governor Whitmer declared shortly after the disaster. And she’s right.

“We must focus on climate change mitigation and build resilient infrastructure so we don’t see something like this happen again,” Whitmer said.

The June storm followed by only seven years a previous Detroit record rain of 4.57 inches in a 24-hour period in August 2014.

“We must focus on climate change mitigation and build resilient infrastructure so we don’t see something like this happen again.”

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that more frequent heavy rainstorms in Michigan would result from a changing climate. “Changing the climate is likely to increase the frequency of floods in Michigan. Over the last half century, average annual precipitation in most of the Midwest has increased by 5 to 10 percent. But rainfall during the four wettest days of the year has increased about 35 percent. During the next century, spring rainfall and annual precipitation are likely to increase, and severe rainstorms are likely to intensify. Each of these factors will tend to further increase the risk of flooding.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the record June rainstorm—and other storms in recent years—have exceeded the capacity of the city’s combined system for handling stormwater and wastewater. “There is not a community in America that sizes their stormwater system to be able to handle as much rain in one day as you’d have in two months,” added Duggan. “Nobody would build a system that big.”

The storm, which resulted in a major disaster declaration from President Biden, also hit Detroit suburbs and some Washtenaw County communities hard. Additional storms in July caused significant flooding and damage.

A report by the 21st Century Michigan Infrastructure Commission estimated an $800 million annual shortfall in drinking water and sewer infrastructure. Proposals to increase spending on water needs in Michigan, using federal American Rescue Plan funds approved by Congress, are circulating in Lansing. Governor Whitmer has also proposed a Michigan Clean Water Plan using state funds.

“There is not a community in America that sizes their stormwater system to be able to handle as much rain in one day as you’d have in two months.”

While these funds can provide a short-term boost, Michigan will continue to need water investments in coming decades. FLOW’s proposed Public Water, Public Justice Act would create a trust fund to invest in clean water infrastructure not only in Southeast Michigan, but across the Great Lakes State. Rainfall is intensifying in Michigan, and our investment strategy must intensify as well to meet the moment and the future.