The cost of electricity could jump dramatically next month in the Upper Peninsula.
Residents there might have to start paying to keep a coal plant open that isn't entirely needed anymore. The increase will be a harsh blow to a region that struggles economically.
Brimley is a little town at the end of the road on Lake Superior’s south shore. There’s a bar, a casino and a couple motels. Brimley State Park draws campers here in the summer and into Ron Holden’s IGA grocery store.
"Basically the six weeks of summer pay for the rest of the year’s bills, " he says. On the wall of the IGA are deer heads, a black bear rug, and a flag that says, ‘American by choice, Yooper by da grace of God.’
But being a Yooper might cost more starting December 1. Holden expects his store’s electric bill will be $700 a month higher and he has no idea where he’ll get that money.
"I really can’t lay anybody off, I need everybody here and everybody here needs this job," says Holden. "Nobody here has this as a second job or because they have nothing to do. I have a husband and wife that work here together. Everybody needs this job."
Holden’s monthly payments of $700 will help keep the Presque Isle Power Plant open. It’s about 150 miles away, near Marquette.
The plant does not provide power to Holden's grocery store or anyone in Brimley. The owners of the coal plant actually want to close it, but it is still needed to keep the transmission grid charged and reliable in the UP.
A complicated series of events
The trigger was when the plant's main customer, an iron ore company, switched to another utility — one from Illinois — to save money.
Now the question is, who pays to keep the plant open and electricity flowing in the UP?
Dan Dasho says UP residents can’t afford it alone. He runs Cloverland Electric Cooperative based in Sault Ste. Marie and he's telling his members to write to their elected officials.
"A short, little, one-sentence line: don’t let this happen to the UP. Governor Snyder, don’t let this happen to the UP. Sign your name. Send it in," he instructed.
Cloverland has nothing to do with the Presque Isle plant, but Dasho’s been making lots of presentations lately. That’s because Cloverland will collect money from its members to keep the plant open.
Crisis could be mirrored in other parts of the country
The situation is particularly difficult in the Upper Peninsula because it’s remote and there are few people.
But Dasho says other parts of the U.S. will face similar problems in the future, because utilities will want to close old coals plants rather than upgrade them to meet new clean air standards.
"And nobody is building anything new. And people in the industry are raising their hand and saying, ‘this is going to be a problem.’ In 2017, it's going to be a problem. Do you know how many people [right now] care about a problem in 2017? Not very many," says Dasho.
Environmental group sees renewable energy as a much-needed solution
That is why Earthjustice is involved. Attorney Tom Cmar says the situation in the UP would be less severe if there had been more coordinated planning.
Earthjustice wants renewable energy and efficiency to be significant parts of the solution. Cmar says the clean air standards date back to 1990 and the industry could have spent more time preparing to meet them rather than fighting them.
"As a result of that, there has been a willful failure on the part of the industry to think about what the world would look like once these outdated, expensive coal plants are finally retired," he says.
In the UP, that question has become urgent. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing the situation.
But without FERC action, UP residents and businesses will have to start ponying up millions of dollars a month while an answer is worked out.