Day 1: Utilities 101

Opening Night:

Utilities 101: Current Trends, Future Directions and the Driving Forces of Energy in the U.S.

Understanding the current state and potential future of energy in the U.S. means wrapping one’s head around infrastructure, market trends, policy and more. Our speakers walked us through the energy ecosystem and explained how and why utilities make the decisions they do. Then we discussed what those energy trends look like on the ground and heard concerns about where we might find a place to fit them into an already crowded landscape.

Day 2: The Future of Coal

Coal’s Long Goodbye: A Coal-Powered Community Envisions a Green Energy Future

In 2014, New Jersey-based NRG Energy purchased a handful of coal-fired power plants in Illinois, including one on the shores of Lake Michigan in Waukegan. NRG spent millions modernizing the plant and reducing emissions. While many in Waukegan see NRG as a job provider and crucial part of the tax base, others are tired of the same old energy source. Outside influences like the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign and the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill, along with Waukegan’s own lakefront redesign project, have brought the issue into the public discourse. A recent poll of residents found 70% of respondents favored transitioning away from coal. We discussed with community leaders and outside advocacy groups the possibility of seeing a different, greener future in the city.

Running a Coal Plant in the 21st Century

The modern tale of coal-fired power production is one of, well, less coal. For many of the plants that aren’t being shuttered entirely, big changes are under way as the fuel that stokes the fires is moving from coal to natural gas. We Energies’ Valley Plant in Milwaukee recently underwent that change. The group learned about that change as they toured the plant, and then heard from the company as it discussed another “modern coal” story, that of the beneficial reuse of coal ash, a practice some see as the best way to dispose of a pernicious waste product, but others contend is a public health menace.

Cleaning up Coal: Beneficial Reuse of Coal Ash

The residue left behind by coal combustion, called “coal ash,” is one of the main kinds of industrial waste generated in the U.S. The primary disposal method is still “wet storage” of the ash in large holding ponds. However, issues of these ponds leaching toxic heavy metals into nearby waterways and the occasional catastrophic failure led to the hunt for a new disposal method. Wisconsin leads the nation in the “beneficial reuse” of coal ash, where dry ash is mixed into materials like wallboard and concrete and as fill in embankments and roadways. The US EPA supports the practice and even lists coal ash as “non-hazardous waste,” but some claim that what’s buried with the ash doesn’t stay there. The group learned more about this from representatives of Wisconsin DNR, Clean Wisconsin, and others.

Day 3: Oil Trains, Old Rusty, and the S.S. Badger

Oil Trains: Can Cities Mitigate Risk and Ease Fears of Grassroots Groups?

During the recent natural gas boom, companies have raced to get their product to market. With no pipelines serving key areas and with big projects like Keystone shuttered, oil companies turned to the rails. But high-profile derailments, like the one in Lac Mégantic, Quebec that killed 47 people, as well as rising concerns over aging U.S. transit infrastructure, have raised concerns about trains loaded down with potentially explosive crude passing through major population centers. It has also led to higher costs and stricter regulations for companies. While it appears oil train traffic is being replaced by new pipeline capacity, there is still risk on the rails. The group met with the Great Lakes Commission about their recent report on oil transport in the region, met with city officials tasked with planning for potential emergencies and heard from local residents who are pushing for bridge inspections and revamped emergency management plans.

Converging at the Confluence: Milwaukee by Boat

Fellows headed to the Milwaukee Kayak Company, donned life jackets, grabbed paddles and got out on the Milwaukee River for a paddler’s-eye view of the city. We headed to “Old Rusty,” an elevated train bridge that crosses over the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers and heard from representatives of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety about concerns over aging inner-city rail infrastructure that involves 36 river crossings and dozens of miles of tracks where passing trains come within feet of densely populated neighborhoods.

Crossing an Inland Sea

The Great Lakes hold one-fifth of all the available (i.e. not frozen) freshwater in the world. The group crossed mighty Lake Michigan aboard the ferry S.S. Badger, which is part of the region’s energy history in its own right: the last coal-fired steamship on the Great Lakes. In fact, up until the end of 2014 the ship dumped the coal ash produced from its boilers right into Lake Michigan. EPA estimates said the ship was dumping up to 4 tons of a slurry of water and coal ash daily. Today, a series of pipes collects the ash and sends it to metal holding bins where, when it reaches land, it can be removed and “beneficially reused” in road projects.

Constant Versus Context: Covering the Environment in the Digital Age

In the digital world today, journalists have traded their role of gatekeepers for one of sifters and winnowers – finding facts in a deluge of information. We explored the brave new world of digital media and identified some useful tools that can help journalists investigate issues, tell stories better and get the results out to a wider audience.

Day 4: Dunes, Sand Mining and the Greening of Grand Rapids

A Morning Amidst Michigan’s Iconic Freshwater Dunes

The largest collection of freshwater sand dunes in the world is strung along Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline. Geologically speaking, these dynamic ecosystems are young – first blowing up on shore only 16,000 years ago. Today, these dynamic ecosystems are still in flux. The group took a hike with a dune geologist to learn about their formation and conservation.

Sand Mining in the Dunes: Historic Company Meets Modern Opposition

Ludington State Park is one of Michigan’s most popular destinations and home to a fantastic example of freshwater sand dunes. It is also home to a 400-acre sand mine run since the 1930s by the Sargent Sand Company. Sargent is still owned and operated by its founding family, and has a long history in the area. It was closely involved in the creation of the park, providing a lot of the land for its creation. For 70 years or so, it was business as usual for Sargent until the oil and gas boom created demand for a particular kind of sand – the kind that’s especially good for fracking. The resulting round-the-clock activity has many residents calling for changes in the mine’s permit – which is up for renewal at the end of this year. The group met with local residents, representatives of FracTracker Alliance, Michigan DEQ, and Ludington State Park. 

The Greening of Grand Rapids: A City Charts an Ambitious Clean Energy Future

Grand Rapids’ ambitious initiative to be powered entirely by renewable energy sources by 2020 was recently revised. But, by purchasing renewable energy from utilities, installing sustainable projects, and aggressively boosting energy efficiency, the city has still made a lot of progress. While the “100% renewable” date was recently pushed back to 2025, Grand Rapids is still considered a model, even named the most sustainable city in America in 2010 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And, at the end of last year, a group of downtown businesses announced the creation of the Grand Rapids 2030 District, joining cities across the nation working to reduce energy use, water consumption and transportation emissions in downtown areas. The group gathered at Rockford Construction Headquarters to talk with city leaders about how they got to where they are and what they need to hit their goal.


Day 5: Natural Gas, In and Out of the Ground

Gas In the Ground: Economic Equalizer, Environmental Question

Michigan stores more natural gas underground than any other state, a practice that allows for increased distribution during peak times and, according to utility companies, stabilizes energy costs. Of course there are always risks associated with such a system – a year ago, natural gas began leaking from an underground facility at Aliso Canyon, California. Over the next four months more than 97,000 metric tons of methane were released – the climate equivalent of burning 917 million gallons of gasoline. The incident exposed gaps in regulation and monitoring of natural gas storage across the U.S. The group learned more about the process from Michigan DEQ and the Michigan Environmental Council, and heard what’s being done to monitor Michigan’s supply and keep gas in the ground.

as Out of the Ground: Will Antrim Shale Ever Become America’s Next Big Oil Play?

The low price of natural gas and oil has suppressed exploration, but Michigan’s Antrim Shale is still producing in the heart of the Great Lakes Basin. What can Michigan’s oil and gas industry – and those concerned about it – expect when prices rebound and drills start humming again? The group visited  an active well pad to talk about the role of natural gas in Michigan’s energy portfolio, how some organizations are preparing for and trying to moderate a potential boom and how the Antrim compares to other shale deposits in the U.S.

Day 6: Enbridge's Line 5 and Pipeline Safety

Out of Sight, but Hardly Out of Mind: Enbridge’s Line 5 and the Straits of Mackinac

Enbridge’s Line 5 carries more than 500,000 barrels of oil and liquid natural gas a day across Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before it takes a hard right to the south – and under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. With each news report of an oil spill somewhere in the country, environmental organizations and area residents worry that a rupture in the 60-year-old pipeline would be calamitous to the Great Lakes. Enbridge assures regulators that the line is sound – and monitors it with state-of-the-art technology. The group toured Enbridge’s pump station near Mackinaw City and learned how they keep an eye on Line 5.

Under Review: Will Studies Shed Light on Spill Response, Pipeline Safety and Alternatives?

What’s at stake if Line 5 breaks? How would Michigan respond? Is there a better way of getting oil across the Straits? These are questions currently under consideration, as a pair of independent studies (that Enbridge has committed well over $3 million to help finance) are exploring both potential damages and clean up requirements of a hypothetical spill as well as alternative means of moving the oil to where the company needs it to go. Those studies aren’t scheduled to wrap up until 2017, however, and some groups have concerns that that’s too long to wait. The group gathered north of the Straits for a conversation about these issues with NRDC, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and Michigan DEQ, and also to get a big-picture view of how oil moves across our nation and how pipeline safety and efficiency stacks up against other means of transport, like oil trains and shipping.

Telling Environment Stories Better

Natural resource stories are some of the hardest to fit into the usual journalism mold. Or, as our esteemed founder always put it, “they don’t break, they ooze.” The group settled in at Ludington Park in Escanaba, Michigan and explored some of the difficulties of doing “good” environment, energy and resource journalism; brainstormed ideas for how to cover some of the stories we encountered on our trip; examples of clear, nuanced and powerful storytelling; and tips and tricks for getting the most out of our own reporting and writing.


Day 7: Wind Power and Cow Power

A Blowing Wind Turns All Turbines? Wind Power Manufacturing in a State That Lags on Wind Power Production

While Wisconsin can brag that it has met its renewable energy target of 10% by 2015, that number lags behind the national average of 13% and has curbed growth in many renewable energy sectors. Wind turbine manufacturing, however, is not one of them. Responding to demand from states like Illinois and Iowa with more robust renewable energy initiatives, companies that manufacture parts used in wind power are still carrying on the long tradition of a state that prides itself on its manufacturing heritage. The group toured a turbine plant at Broadwind Energy and then gathered for a discussion about how policy and politics drive business decisions and what companies hope for the future of renewable energy.

Then the group headed out to Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, WI. Lakeshore Tech is one of only three schools in the country with a wind power technology program that trains students for careers as wind power technicians. The group toured the outdoor wind lab and talked with officials at the school about their program, its increasing demand and what it’s like training Wisconsin students for high-tech careers in other states.


Cow Power: Anaerobic Digesters Produce Power and Take Load Off Farmers’ Hands

The use of anaerobic digesters to produce power from cow manure is a waste disposal issue first and a green energy issue second. Known for its iconic dairy farms (and their resulting milk and cheese), Wisconsin is also home to excessive nutrient pollution. The problem is that, well, cows poop. A lot. And farmers have to put that poop somewhere. For years, that meant spreading manure on fields, where heavy rain events or winter thaws could send all of it into nearby waterways. Manure digesters divert those nutrients to a different fate – one that also has the benefit of producing power. But can these small operations scale up to be community power sources? Will the price utilities pay for that power keep the technology dormant? The group visited the Vir-Clar Farms and toured their manure digester as they discussed these questions.

fter our visit to the farm, we headed to nearby fields to explore how projects like digesters help clear up water quality. Then we brought the whole thing full circle as we looked at a study on adding gypsum to fields to keep nutrients in the soil and out of the water. Where’s that gypsum come from? Coal ash, of course!