Column: Decarbonizing Michigan’s economy will also improve water quality

October 11, 2023 9:16 am

DTE Monroe power plant | Susan J. Demas

The Michigan Legislature is poised to pass one of the most comprehensive clean energy initiatives in the country, requiring 100 percent of electric power to come from carbon-free sources by 2035. The ambitious legislative agenda implements Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan.

Getting less attention is the fact that it will also provide long-term benefits to Michigan’s water resources by significantly reducing pollution from burning fossil fuels.

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Water and energy are highly interdependent. Enormous quantities of water are required to produce energy and appreciable amounts of energy are required to purify and deliver drinking water and to power wastewater treatment systems.

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 – the harmful impacts of producing and burning fossil fuels on our Great Lakes, rivers and streams, and groundwater will be measurably reduced. 

Electricity generated by steam from coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants – called thermoelectric generation – accounts for 67 percent of water use in the Great Lakes Region and 74 percent of all water use in Michigan.  Power plants need cooling water. Water pumped from the Great Lakes and their tributary rivers “entrains” or kills millions of fish and aquatic organisms from stress and pressure changes.

Once heated, water released from power plants causes thermal impacts, changing fish populations, lowering dissolved oxygen levels, helping propagate algae, and altering the animals, plants, and bacteria that live in the water and on the lake bottom.

A century of burning coal has resulted in widespread pollution of our Great Lakes. Mercury, a powerful neurotoxin released from coal-fired power plants, is responsible for 57 percent of all mercury present in the Great Lakes, resulting in official advisories to limit consumption of Great Lakes fish.  

Burning natural gas is said to be  “cleaner” than coal, but like coal releases nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter – all of which inevitably impact Michigan’s surface waters. 

The process of producing fossil fuels requires huge amounts of freshwater that become contaminated and must be disposed of — water lost for all time.  Completion of the drilling process yields polluted “flow-back” water contaminated with a variety of chemicals and oil and gas constituents as well as naturally occurring brine that is pumped out with the 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.  Mining coal consumes huge amounts of water as well, using 50 to 59 gallons of water for each of the 577 million tons of coal mined in the United States in 2021.  

Transporting oil and gas via pipelines can have catastrophic impacts on water resources. Between 1998 and 2017 there have been 11,758 pipeline spills in the United States that were classified as “significant” by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Lake Michigan | Susan J. Demas

Impacts from climate change

Climate change brings specific climate related impacts, risks, and challenges to the protection and management of public water resources. In 2016 alone, thermoelectric power plants in Michigan emitted 58,644,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The combustion of fossil fuels has raised regional temperatures 2.3 degrees since 1951.   

The benefits of the proposed energy transition to our water resources are not speculative, they are measurable and science based. Wind and solar energy are now the cheapest new energy infrastructure available worldwide.  Every megawatt-hour of wind and solar energy avoids use of 8,240 gallons of thermal cooling water 

An acre of solar panels producing electricity avoids more than 120 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That same acre of solar panels will produce enough electricity to power an electric vehicle 40 to 100 times farther than ethanol produced from the same acre of corn.  Ethanol production can require up to 865 gallons of water for each gallon of fuel produced.  

Whitmer’s clean energy and climate initiatives would bring multiple benefits to public health, the environment, the business community, and Michigan citizens at large. And our Great Lakes – the largest, most extraordinary fresh surface water system in the world, will benefit, as well.


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Stanley “Skip” Pruss
Stanley “Skip” Pruss

Stanley “Skip” Pruss was the Board Chair of FLOW (For Love of Water) and now serves FLOW as a senior advisor. Skip is the co-founder of 5 Lakes Energy LLC, a clean energy consultancy, and was the Director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth under Gov. Jennifer Granholm.