By Nathan LaFramboise
As a University of Michigan student studying earth and environmental sciences, I have long been enthralled by renewable energy, in part because I believe it’s the future of solving the climate crisis. I also have a strong passion for our Great Lakes and would like to explore a potential crossover between renewable energy and the Great Lakes.
At least one community in Michigan has harnessed the power of the lakes for renewable energy production in a hydropower plant. In this story I explore the possibilities and challenges of producing electric power through a plant adjacent to Lake Michigan.
Background on Hydropower
In the scope of the climate crisis, the search for efficient, safe, and reliable renewable energy sources is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face. There are many methods to produce energy with a minimal carbon footprint, such as wind power, solar power, geothermal power, and hydroelectric power.
Most people are familiar with the standard methods of obtaining electric power through wind turbines and photovoltaic solar panels, but the methods of geothermal and hydroelectric power are probably less known.
Geothermal power utilizes underground pipe systems to heat and store electricity, while hydropower capitalizes on gravity’s effect on water, producing and storing energy through the rise and fall of water. We will take a look at some geothermal energy production methods in a later post, but today’s focus is hydropower.
Probably the most well-known method of hydroelectric power is a dam system. The process of producing electricity through this method is actually quite simple.
As shown below, a dam is constructed in a river system, with a turbine placed in the middle of the dam. The water flows downward through the intake, and moves the turbine, which in turn produces electricity. This clean, efficient, and simple process creates strong incentives to utilize this method as a renewable source of clean energy.
So What’s the Catch?
As with most forms of energy production, there is a large environmental cost to hydroelectric power. The construction of a massive dam in a river system has severe implications for a river’s ecosystem. A dam makes it very difficult for any wildlife to pass through its barriers. This can be incredibly problematic for migratory fish such as salmon, which require moving up and downstream regularly to spawn new offspring.
Because a hydroelectric dam is quite large, it also requires a huge amount of land. There are some solutions to the problem of inhibiting wildlife movement, such as fish ladders, but not all projects are able to produce such a solution. As shown below, a fish ladder allows fish to travel step by step through the hydroelectric dam without severely impeding their movement.
An Alternative Solution in the Great Lakes
Ludington, Michigan, a town on the coast of Lake Michigan, has implemented an interesting alternative to hydroelectric dams that just may be the solution the industry was looking for.
Ludington uses a method called “pumped storage hydro-electricity,” which essentially cycles Lake Michigan water through gravitational forces, storing electricity in the form of a makeshift battery.
The process is quite simple. In this case Lake Michigan acts as the lower reservoir. The facility pumps its water into the upper reservoir ,which can be released at any time to be converted into electricity. Gravity takes the water back down into the lake, which in turn activates a generator at the bottom of the pump. This method creates a sort of closed-loop of energy production, essentially producing an unlimited source of battery-powered electricity. In Ludington, the upper reservoir was built and lined with asphalt and clay to prevent water seeping into the ground nearby, thus allowing a permanent form of water storage.
So how does this in turn prevent environmental damages that are typically associated with hydroelectric dams? As shown by the photo below, the plant in Ludington has a barrier around its infrastructure that prevents most wildlife from entering or exiting the cycling process. Additionally, the plant is located on the immediate shoreline of the Lake, so it does not interfere with incoming river systems, or migratory pathways of fish.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no environmental damages associated with pumped storage hydroelectricity. Some might argue that the alteration of pristine Great Lakes shorelines is enough damage to warrant not pursuing this method. But if the alternative is damming up rivers completely and potentially inhibiting future generations of wildlife, this seems to be the lesser of two evils.
Since its construction in 1973, the Ludington pumped storage plant has shown tremendous success. After its construction, it was given the “Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and has shown great success since then. In a story by journalist Dave Alexander, in early 2011 the plant received $800 million in funding to extend its lifespan by another 40 years. This funding allowed the expansion of the plant’s capacity as well, adding to the number of homes it can power. Citizens of Ludington should be proud to be home to such a great engineering success!
While this method of hydropower might not be feasible nationwide, it’s certainly a valid alternative in the state of Michigan, and any location with ready access to a coastline.
Several U.S. locations use this method, such as the Bath County pumped storage station in Virginia, and the Raccoon Mountain pumped storage plant in Tennessee. Instead of a coastline, both of these plants take advantage of local elevation changes to create two reservoirs.
In general this method struggles in states lacking large bodies of water, where river systems are the dominant form of water movement. In the Great Plains and Midwestern states, wind and solar power would be better renewable energy options. States along the Pacific or Atlantic coastline could use this method to great success, along with many cities bordering the Great Lakes.
Alexander, Dave. “Ludington Area Officials Thrilled With $800 Million Investment In The Pumped Storage Plant”. Mlive, 2020, https://www.mlive.com/business/west-michigan/2011/02/ludington_area_officials_thril.html.
“Bath County Pumped Storage Station | Dominion Energy”. Dominionenergy.Com, 2020, https://www.dominionenergy.com/company/making-energy/renewable-generation/water/bath-county-pumped-storage-station.
Environmental Impact Of Hydropower. 2020, https://www.governmenteuropa.eu/environmental-impact-of-hydropower/91552/. Accessed 27 Mar 2020.
“Hydropower And The Environment – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)”. Eia.Gov, 2020, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydropower/hydropower-and-the-environment.php.
Igo, Stephen. “Griffith’s Pumped Storage Hydropower Bill Advances”. Kingsport Times-News, 2020, https://www.timesnews.net/Government/2017/12/07/Griffith-s-hydro-bill-advances.
“Ludington Pumped Storage Power Plant”. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludington_Pumped_Storage_Power_Plant.
“Pumped Storage Hydro Electricity | Consumers Energy”. Consumersenergy.Com, 2020, https://www.consumersenergy.com/company/what-we-do/electric-generation/pumped-storage-hydro-electricity.
“TVA – Raccoon Mountain”. Tva.Gov, 2020, https://www.tva.gov/Energy/Our-Power-System/Hydroelectric/Raccoon-Mountain.
“Water Energy | A Student’s Guide To Global Climate Change | US EPA”. Archive.Epa.Gov, 2020, https://archive.epa.gov/climatechange/kids/solutions/technologies/water.html.