McDiarmid, '84, Powers On Isaac Symposium with Energy Update

April 24, 2014

Hugh McDiarmidAlbion College's 25th annual Elkin R. Isaac Research Symposium opened with a high-energy presentation by Hugh McDiarmid, '84, communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC). McDiarmid earned a standing ovation for his insights into "Michigan's Clean Energy Success and Why Not Everyone Is Thrilled."

The great news, said McDiarmid, is that Michigan is on track to meet its 2015 goal of having 10 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources. "You probably won't hear a lot about it, and the fact that you won't is a huge success, because it's not controversial any more," he explained.

This successful goal is due in large part to the drop in renewable energy prices, especially wind energy, over the past five years. The latest report from the Michigan Public Service Commission listed wind-energy contracts selling for $59 per megawatt hour, compared to $100 and more for solar, nuclear and coal-plant contracts.

The difference is even greater when the true costs of Michigan coal plants are factored in. McDiarmid noted that Michigan's nine dirtiest coal-powered plants have been responsible for nearly $42 billion in added health-care costs for surrounding residents. Even that "doesn't take into account productivity loss of students who miss school, parents who miss work, and other disruptions," McDiarmid pointed out. "That's an externalized cost—it's not in your utility bill, it's in your health insurance. When people say coal doesn't cost much, add in the real costs and the numbers start changing."

Still, McDiarmid notes that the increasing cost efficiency of wind energy is difficult for power companies to embrace. DTE Energy has significant investments in coal-carrying rail cars and coal-storage facilities. Also, "if you work in a coalition, you spend more time fighting your friends than fighting your enemies," said McDiarmid, noting that some MEC members opposed the 10 percent renewable-energy goal on the grounds that it was too modest. Nonetheless, "if you would have told me in 2009 that renewable energy would be this cheap, I would have said it was ludicrous. But the costs have been cut in half."

This trend has caught the attention of Governor Rick Snyder, who has instituted a statewide recycling initiative and is promoting raised efficiency standards in a variety of industries. "We've got more than 300 companies employing 20,000 people in wind or solar. If we pause even for two or three years, those jobs will dry up," said McDiarmid.

McDiarmid pointed out that he hadn't mentioned climate change, an intentional omission. It's a driving concern, he said, but "there are people who are confused about climate change. I can't change how they think, but I can convince them this makes sense economically, on a public-health level and on a jobs level."

McDiarmid compared anti-climate-change activists to the tobacco industry, which for decades skewed and challenged scientific evidence of the dangers of smoking. "There's a famous tobacco industry memo that came out saying, 'Doubt is our product,'" McDiarmid said. "Create doubt and fear and people will be afraid of change."

The solution, he said, "is to 'meet people where they are, not where you are. If you're talking to a CEO, you might talk about the economic impact; if you're talking to someone who loves to fish and hunt, it will be different.

"We need you in the game. We need you to engage, not only in your research, but in the public policy arena," McDiarmid concluded. "Pick something, learn about it and get yourself pushing on the right side of history."