Bright ideas in clean energy shared

BENTON HARBOR — Corn stalks, landfill garbage and manure can save the planet.

These waste products, along with solar and wind power, are the raw material to create renewable energy, according to experts participating in a town hall discussion at Kinexus, hosted Thursday by state Rep. Kim LaSata and sponsored by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

“Corn stover is opportunity,” announced Jim Straeter, head of Ag Technologies of Rochester, Ind., referring to the leaves, stalks and cobs left behind in a field after harvest. “Manure is opportunity.”

According to a three-year study at Michigan State University, the corn bi-products can be converted into animal feed and bedding, as well as fuel that can be used to generate heat, Straeter said. Manure is being converted into a usable methane gas.

“This is why manure is gold,” said Straeter, showing a photo of a tractor that runs on methane.

An even more plentiful commodity than manure is sunlight, Straeter said. His company sells a solar cam that allows panels to be tilted to follow the path of the sun, making energy generation more efficient.

Over 30 years, energy from solar panels can be generated at 2.7 cents per kilowatt hour, Straeter said. He reported that solar is a growing field, with more people now working in the industry than oil, natural gas and coal combined.

Straeter also touted LED lights as a “must-do” for major energy savings for schools, businesses and for street lights. A $5,000 investment in LED lights equals the savings from $35,000 put into solar power, he said.

LaSata, a Bainbridge Township resident representing the 79th District, has experience with solar power. She and her husband, Charles, installed panels at their farm in 2014 with assistance from Straeter. As of July 4 of this year, they haven’t had an electric bill, she said.

Those who generate their energy via solar do have charge-backs from the power company to maintain lines and other infrastructure, Straeter said.

The Orchard Hill landfill in Watervliet is taking advantage of something that might otherwise go to waste, by producing methane from garbage, said Chris Phillips with Landfill Management Co. The gas is produced by compressing trash into cells, that are tapped by wells that transmit the gas to the nearby energy plant.

The energy production plant, owned by a different company, just celebrated its fourth anniversary. In that time, the plant has generated 105 million kilowatts of electricity, Phillips said. Each of its two engines produces enough energy to each year to power 1,000 homes. The gas also can be transported for use in methane-fueled vehicles.

Bill Schalk, spokesman for the Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman, also took part in the panel discussion and provided a glowing report on his facility.

“I think we’re clean energy” because the plant has no emissions, Schalk said. The parent company, American Electric Power, was once the country’s largest burner of coal, but is making the transition to solar power, he added.

Schalk backed an “all of the above approach” to future energy production by using solar and wind along with other methods to maintain the baseline grid.

Pure Michigan waste

How is Michigan doing in the renewable energy field?

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that Michigan ranks first in the Midwest in importing coal and also has the region’s highest electric rates.

But progress is being made. Michigan invested $3.3 billion in renewable energy projects through 2016, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission, and energy efficiency programs have saved utility customers $1.2 billion in the last three years.

For 2015-16, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters gave Gov. Rick Snyder and legislators an “A” for approving standards that would increase the state’s renewable energy benchmark from 10 to 15 percent by 2021. Snyder received a “D-plus” in air quality, and an “F” for his handling of the Flint water crisis.

The league also grades individual legislators on their support of the organization’s agenda. For 2015-16 state Reps. Al Pscholka and Aric Nesbitt (both term-limited) and Dave Pagel earned marks of 46 percent. State Sens. John Proos and Tonya Schuitmaker supported the league’s agenda 28 percent of the time.

LaSata, who succeeded Pscholka in January, said she supports the governor’s position on clean energy, but added that changes can’t happen overnight.

“We all like clean rivers, we all like clean lakes, we all like clean water,” LaSata said during the panel discussion. “Of course, we all want clean air. … We have to be reasonable and open-minded and listen. If we do that, we can have a discussion.”

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