Michigan’s budding renewable clean energy sector has room to grow

By Vivian Underhill, Data and GIS Intern; and Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

California and New York are not the only states supporting the transition from harmful fossil fuels such as natural gas to more sustainable and less polluting clean, renewable energy sources. In collaboration with Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), FracTracker has produced a series of maps investigating current clean energy businesses, existing renewable energy infrastructure, and renewable energy potential. These maps show where growth of the renewable economies is growing and even identifies the many renewable contractors and projects that are planned and already active across the country.

Michigan’s Clean Energy Sector

According to the Clean Jobs Midwest Report, growth of the renewable sector has been a strong boon for local Michigan economies, in addition to reducing green-house gas emissions. Michigan increased clean energy jobs by 5.3 percent, or 4,655, outpacing other job sectors in the state by a factor of three. According to a new Union of Concerned Scientists Report, Michigan utilities could create 10 times more jobs in renewables than natural gas. Another report by the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that:

… using the latest wind turbine technologies, Michigan’s onshore wind resource has the potential to generate nearly five times the state’s 2012 electricity demand, even after a variety of competing land uses are accounted for. Solar photovoltaic (PV) resources in urban areas — including large ground-mounted and smaller rooftop systems — could provide another 71 percent of the state’s 2012 electricity demand.

FracTracker’s maps below show plenty of potential for additional renewable energy generation, and highlight where Michigan’s clean energy sector is already paving the way to a healthier future. But first, let’s give you some background on this story.


In 2008, Michigan passed legislation requiring utilities to generate 10% of their electricity from renewables by 2015. In 2014, The Michigan Public Service Commmission (MPSC) reported that this legislation would save the state over $4 billion dollars; as the MPSC Chairman John D. Quackenbush wrote in conjunction with a 2014 report on the state’s energy optimization activities: “The cheapest energy is the energy never used… For every dollar spent on these programs in 2014, customers can expect to realize $4.38 in savings – more than any year since 2010.” In addition, the statute’s focus on renewables has brought nearly $3 billion in renewable energy investment to the state.

In 2016, legislators built on this track record and improved aspects of the state’s clean energy standards with Public Acts 341 and 342; among other things, these acts increase the percentage of renewable energy to 15% by 2021, and otherwise incentivize clean energy sources.

Just last week, Michigan’s two largest utilities committed to increase their renewable power generation to 25% by 2030 under pressure from a ballot drive launched by Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist.

Maps of Michigan’s Clean Energy Sector

Below we have embedded the maps FracTracker created with E2, showing clean energy potential, generation capacity, and the location of clean energy businesses in Michigan.

Map 1. Michigan Clean Energy Potential

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As shown in the map above, solar and wind are the most dominant forms of renewable energy in Michigan, although there is also potential to take advantage of the geothermal energy. Approximately 75% of the state has potential for either wind, solar, or geothermal power.

Map 2. Michigan Clean Energy Generation Capacity

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Map 2, above, shows the current generating capacity in the state. Most of Michigan’s existing solar and wind infrastructure exists in the South and Southeast portions of the state, though not exclusively. Many schools also have solar capabilities on their roofs. Further, 32 counties already have large-scale renewable energy projects, and many more are in in the works.

Map 3. Michigan Clean Energy Businesses

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Finally, a vibrant industry of over 1,200 businesses has developed to support the clean energy revolution in Michigan. Map 3 (above) shows the locations of these entreprenuers in fields that include both energy efficiency and renewable energy generation (solar, wind, and geothermal). Businesses include a range of operations including design, machining, installation, contracting, and maintenance – covering all 38 state senate districts and all 110 state house districts.

Room to Grow

While Michigan has come a long way in recent years, the field of clean renewable energy generation is still in its infancy. This geographical assessment, in addition to the numerous economic reports showing the profitability of the clean energy sector, paint a brighter future for Michigan and the climate. However, much more potential remains to be tapped, across solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. It is imperative that policies are put in place to prioritize clean energy growth over natural gas.

Cover photo: MI Wind Farm. Photo by Michelle Froese | Windpower Engineering and Development

Explore additional state analyses: IL | MI | MONY | OHPA

Help us in addressing pressing energy issues

Help us investigate pressing energy issues by donating to FracTracker’s Annual Fund

Dear Friends,

David Braun discussing pressing energy issues

David Braun, FracTracker’s Honorary Annual Fund Chair, at a climate revolution rally in Los Angeles – Photo by Bryan Giardinelli

I’ve been fighting fracking for many years, in fact, it seems like a lifetime. I helped win the fracking ban in New York, organize coalitions like Americans Against Fracking and Californians Against Fracking, and, more recently, coordinate a major campaign called Oil Money Out – aimed at getting California politicians and Governor Jerry Brown to reject campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, and instead prioritize public health. The work never stops, but we’re making critical headway.

Less than a year ago, I joined the board of FracTracker Alliance. Their maps, data, and insights are invaluable in my advocacy and in the efforts of so many other organizations addressing pressing energy issues. The FracTracker mobile app is a powerful tool to document the harms occurring in too many communities. Their small but mighty staff is passionate about what they do, and they’re good at it. They’re well-versed in the concerns and threats emblematic of oil and gas development.

As a vocal front-line advocate for better energy, FracTracker’s often behind-the-scenes work may not seem congruent with my methods, but the organization is an ally – a group who understands the synergy of collaboration. They work with people across the country on pressing issues: pipelines, sand mines, injection wells, ethane crackers. The list goes on.

Like other groups, they need ample resources to continue informing the public and serving the movement. I’m proud to be their honorary annual fund chair for the current fiscal year.

We need your help in reaching our goal of raising $25,000.

We know there are many worthy efforts competing for your donations, but every contribution to FracTracker – big or small  – means a lot and gets us closer to our goal.

FracTracker seeks and treats donors respectfully. You won’t get nagged, but you will be rewarded with their hard work. Just check out their website and bear witness to their reach and impact. Please donate today.

If I need the best data or a provocative map, I go to FracTracker. If I need a photo to hit home a point, I can find one on the FracTracker image library. The testimonials from my peers pushing back on extreme energy attest: FracTracker is a force we can depend on.

Please help sustain their work with a personal donation.

“The times they are a changing” because of people like you who care. Thanks for fueling the momentum. Together, we’ll change the world.

In solidarity and appreciation,
David Braun

Ethanol and fracking

North American Ethanol’s Land, Water, Nutrient, and Waste Impact

Corn Ethanol and Fracking – Similarities Abound

Even though it is a biofuel and not a fossil fuel, in this post we discuss the ways in which the corn ethanol production industry is similar to the fracking industry. For those who may not be familiar, biofuel refers to a category of fuels derived directly from living matter. These may include:

  1. Direct combustion of woody biomass and crop residues, which we recently mapped and outlined,
  2. Ethanol1 produced directly from the fermentation of sugarcanes or indirectly by way of the intermediate step of producing sugars from corn or switchgrass cellulose,
  3. Biodiesel from oil crops such as soybeans, oil palm, jatropha, and canola or cooking oil waste,2 and
  4. Anaerobic methane digestion of natural gas from manures or human waste.

Speaking about biofuels in 2006, J. Hill et al. said:

To be a viable substitute for a fossil fuel, an alternative fuel should not only have superior environmental benefits over the fossil fuel it displaces, be economically competitive with it, and be producible in sufficient quantities to make a meaningful impact on energy demands, but it should also provide a net energy gain over the energy sources used to produce it.

Out of all available biofuels it is ethanol that accounts for a lion’s share of North American biofuel production (See US Renewables Map Below). This trend is largely because most Americans put the E-10 blends in their tanks (10% ethanol).3 Additionally, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for ethanol production to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022, which would essentially double the current capacity (17.9 billion gallons) and require the equivalent of an additional 260 refineries to come online by then (Table 1, bottom).

US Facilities Generating Energy from Biomass and Waste along with Ethanol Refineries and Wind Farms

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

But more to the point… the language, tax regimes, and potential costs of both ethanol production and fracking are remarkably similar. (As evidenced by the quotes scattered throughout this piece.) Interestingly, some of the similarities are due to the fact that “Big Ag” and “Big Oil” are coupled, growing more so every year:

The shale revolution has resulted in declining natural gas and oil prices, which benefit farms with the greatest diesel, gasoline, and natural gas shares of total expenses, such as rice, cotton, and wheat farms. However, domestic fertilizer prices have not substantially fallen despite the large decrease in the U.S. natural gas price (natural gas accounts for about 75-85 percent of fertilizer production costs). This is due to the relatively high cost of shipping natural gas, which has resulted in regionalized natural gas markets, as compared with the more globalized fertilizer market. (USDA, 2016)

Ethanol’s Recent History

For background, below is a timeline of important events and publications related to ethanol regulation in the U.S. in the last four decades: 

Benefits of Biofuels

[Bill] Clinton justified the ethanol mandate by declaring that it would provide “thousands of new jobs for the future” and that “this policy is good for our environment, our public health, and our nation’s farmers—and that’s good for America.” EPA administrator Carol Browner claimed that “it is important to our efforts to diversify energy resources and promote energy independence.” – James Bovard citing Peter Stone’s “The Big Harvest,” National Journal, July 30, 1994.

Of the 270 ethanol refineries we had sufficient data for, we estimate these facilities employ 235,624 people or 873 per facility and payout roughly $6.18-6.80 billion in wages each year, at an average of $22.9-25.2 million per refinery. These employees spend roughly 423,000 hours at the plant or at associated operations earning between $14.63 and $16.10 per hour including benefits. Those figures amount to 74-83% of the average US income. In all fairness, these wages are 13-26% times higher than the farming, fishing, and forestry sectors in states like Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa, which alone account for 33% of US ethanol refining.

Additional benefits of ethanol refineries include the nearly 179 million tons of CO2 left in the field as stover each year, which amounts to 654,532 tons per refinery. Put another way – these amounts are equivalent to the annual emissions of 10.7 million and 39,194 Americans, respectively.

Finally, what would a discussion of ethanol refineries be without an estimate of how much gasoline is produced? It turns out that the 280 refineries (for which we have accurate estimates of capacity) produce an average of 71.93 million gallons per year and 20.1 billion gallons in total. That figure represents 14.3% of US gasoline demand.

Costs of Biofuels

Direct Costs

Biofuel expansions such as those listed in the timeline above and those eluded to by the likes of the IPCC have several issues associated with them. One of which is what Pimentel et al. considered an insufficient – and to those of us in the fracking NGO community, familiar sounding – “breadth of relevant expertise and perspectives… to pronounce fairly and roundely on this many-sided issue.”

The above acts and reports in the timeline prompted many American farmers to double down on corn at the expense of soybeans, which caused Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC); the global soy market skyrocketed. This, in turn, prompted the clearing and/or burning of large swaths of the Amazonian rainforests and tropical savannas in Brazil, the world’s second-leading soy producer. More recently, large swaths of Indonesia and Malaysia’s equally biodiverse peatland forests have been replaced by palm oil plantations (Table 2 and Figure 3, bottom). In the latter countries, forest displacement is increasing by 2.7-5.3% per year, which is roughly equal to the the rate of land-use change associated with hydraulic fracturing here in the US4 (Figure 1).

Figures 1A and 1B. Palm Oil Production in A) Indonesia and B) Malaysia between 1960 and 2016.

There is an increasing amount of connectivity between disparate regions of the world with respect to energy consumption, extraction, and generation. These connections also affect how we define renewable or sustainable:

In a globalized world, the impacts of local decisions about crop preferences can have far reaching implications. As illustrated by an apparent “corn connection” to Amazonian deforestation, the environmental benefits of corn-based biofuel might be considerably reduced when its full and indirect costs are considered. (Science, 2007)

These authors pointed to the fact that biofuel expectations and/or mandates fail to account for costs associated with atmospheric – and leaching – emissions of carbon, nitrogen, phophorus, etc. during the conversion of lands, including diverse rainforests, peatlands, savannas, and grasslands, to monocultures. Also overlooked were:

  • The ethical concerns associated with growing malnourishment from India to the United States,
  • The fact that 10-60%5 more fossil fuel derived energy is required to produce a unit of corn ethanol than is actually contained within this very biofuel, and
  • The tremendous “Global land and water grabbing” occuring in the name of natural resource security, commodification, and biofuel generation.

Sacrificing long-term ecological/food security in the name of short-term energy security has caused individuals and governments to focus on taking land out of food production and putting it into biofuels.

The rationale for ethanol subsidies has continually changed to meet shifting political winds. In the late 1970s ethanol was championed as a way to achieve energy independence. In the early 1980s ethanol was portrayed as salvation for struggling corn farmers. From the mid and late 1980s onward, ethanol has been justified as saving the environment. However, none of those claims can withstand serious examination. (James Bovard, 1995)

This is instead of going the more environmentally friendly route of growing biofuel feedstocks on degraded or abandoned lands. An example of such an endeavor is the voluntary US Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has stabilized at roughly 45-57 thousand square miles of enrolled land since 1990, even though the average payout per acre has continued to climb (Figure 2).

The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

Figure 2. The Average Subsidy to Farmers Per Acre of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1986 and 2015.

The primary goals of the CRP program are to provide an acceptable “floor” for commodity prices, reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, ecosystem services, biodiversity, and improve water quality on highly erodible, degraded, or flood proned croplands. Interestingly CRP acreage has declined by 27% since a high of 56 thousand square miles prior to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 being passed. Researchers have pointed to the fact that corn ethanol production on CRP lands would create a carbon debt that would take 48 years to repay vs. a 93 year payback period for ethanol on Central US Grasslands.

To quote Fred Magdoff in The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels:

Alternative fuel sources are attractive because they can be developed and used without questioning the very workings of the economic system — just substitute a more “sustainable,” “ecologically sound,” and “renewable” energy for the more polluting, expensive, and finite amounts of oil. People are hoping for magic bullets to “solve” the problem so that capitalist societies can continue along their wasteful growth and consumption patterns with the least disruption. Although prices of fuels may come down somewhat — with dips in the business cycle, higher rates of production, or a burst in the speculative bubble in the futures market for oil — they will most likely remain at historically high levels as the reserves of easily recovered fuel relative to annual usage continues to decline.

Indirect Costs: Ethanol, Fertilizers, and the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone

This is the Midwest vs. the Middle East. It’s corn farmers vs. the oil companies. – Dwaney Andreas in Big Stink on the Farm by David Greising

Sixty-nine percent6 of North America’s ethanol refineries are within the Mississippi River Basin (MRB). These refineries collectively rely on corn that receives 1.9-5.1 million tons of nitrogen each year, with a current value of $1.06-2.91 billion dollars or 9,570-26,161 tons of nitrogen per refinery per year (i.e. $5.42-14.81 million per refinery per year). These figures account for 27-73% of all nitrogen fertilizer used in the MRB each year. More importantly, the corn acreage receiving this nitrogen leaches roughly 0.81-657 thousand tons of it directly into the MRB. Such a process amounts to 5-44% of all nitrogen discharged into the Gulf of Mexico each year and 1.7-13.8 million tons of algae responsible for the Gulf’s growing Dead Zone.

Midwest/Great Plains US Ethanol Refineries and Crop Residue Production

Leaching of this nitrogen is analogous to flushing $45.7-371.6 million dollars worth of precious capital down the drain. Put another way, these dollar figures translate into anywhere between 55% and an astonishing 4.53 times Direct Costs to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries of the Dead Zone itself.

These same refineries rely on corn acreage that also receives 0.53-2.61 million tons of phosphorus each year with a current value of 0.34-1.66 billion dollars. Each refinery has a phosphrous footprint in the range of 2,700 to 13,334 tons per year (i.e., $1.72-8.47 million). We estimate that 25,399-185,201 tons of this fertilizer phosphorus is leached into the the MRB, which is equivalent to 19% or as much as 1.42 times all the phosphorous dischared into the Gulf of Mexico per year. Such a process means $16.13-117.60 million is lost per year.

Together, the nitrogen and phosphorus leached from acreage allocated to corn ethanol have a current value that is between 75% and nearly 6 times the value lost every year to the Gulf’s seafood and tourism industries.

Indirect Costs: Fertilizer and Herbicide Costs and Leaching

The 270 ethanol refineries we have quality production data for are relying on corn that receives 367,772 tons of herbicide and insecticide each year, with a current value of $6.67 billion dollars or 1,362 tons of chemical preventitive per refinery per year (i.e. $24.7 million per refinery per year). More importantly the corn acreage receiving these inputs leaches roughly 15.8-128.7 thousand tons of it directly into surrounding watersheds and underlying aquifers. Leaching of these inputs is analogous to flushing $287 million to $2.3 billion dollars down the drain.

What’s Next?

During the recent Trump administration EPA, USDA, DOE administrator hearings, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was cited as critical to American energy independence by a bipartisan group of 23 senators. Among these were Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican Chuck Grassley, who co-wrote a letter to new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt demanding that the RFS remains robust and expands when possible. In the words of Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp – and long-time ethanol supporter – straight from the heart of the Bakken Shale Revolution in North Dakota:

The RFS has worked well for North Dakota farmers, and I’m fighting to defend it. As we’re doing today in this letter, I’ll keep pushing in the U.S. Senate for the robust RFS [and Renewable Volume Obligations (RVOs)] we need to support a thriving biofuels industry and stand up for biofuels workers. Biofuels create good-paying jobs in North Dakota and help support our state’s farmers, who rely on this important market – particularly when commodity prices are challenging.

Furthermore, the entire Iowa congressional delegation including the aforementioned Sen. Grassley joined newly minted USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue when he told the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association:

You have nothing to worry about. Did you hear what he said during the campaign? Renewable energy, ethanol, is here to stay, and we’re going to work for new technologies to be more efficient.

How this advocacy will play out and how the ethanol industry will respond (i.e., increase productivity per refinery or expand the number of refineries) is anybody’s guess. However, it sounds like the same language, lobbying, and advertising will continue to be used by the Ethanol and Unconventional Oil and Gas industries. Additional parallels are sure to follow with specific respect to water, waste, and land-use.

Furthermore, as both industries continue their ramp up in research and development, we can expect to see productivity per laborer to continue on an exponential path. The response in DC – and statehouses across the upper Midwest and Great Plains – will likely be further deregulation, as well.

From a societal perspective, an increase in ethanol production/grain diversion away from people’s plates has lead to a chicken-and-egg positive feedback loop, whereby our farmers continue to increase total and per-acre corn production with less and less people. In rural areas, mining and agriculture have been the primary employment sectors. A further mechanization of both will likely amplify issues related to education, drug dependence, and flight to urban centers (Figures 4A and B).

We still don’t know exactly how efficient ethanol refineries are relative to Greenhouse Gas Emissions per barrel of oil. By merging the above data with facility-level CO2 emissions from the EPA Facility Level Information on Greenhouse gases Tool (FLIGHT) database we were able to match nearly 200 of the US ethanol refineries with their respective GHG emissions levels back to 2010. These facilities emit roughly:

  • 195,116 tons of CO2 per year, per facility,
  • A total of 36.97 million tons per year (i.e., 2.11 million Americans worth of emissions), and
  • 22,265 tons of CO2 per barrel of ethanol produced.

Emissions from ethanol will increase to 74.35 million tons in 2022 if the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007’s prescriptions run their course. Such an upward trend would be equivalent to the GHG emissions of somewhere between that of Seattle and Detroit.

What was once a singles match between Frackers and Sheikhs may turn into an Australian Doubles match with the Ethanol Lobby and Farm Bureau joining the fray. This ‘game’ will only further stress the food, energy, and water (FEW) nexus from California to the Great Lakes and northern Appalachia.

We are on a thinner margin of food security, just as we are on a thinner margin of oil security… The [World] Bank implicitly questions whether it is wise to divert half of the world’s increased output of maize and wheat over the next decade into biofuels to meet government “mandates.” – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph

Will long-term agricultural security be sacrificed in the name of short-term energy independence?

US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figure 3. US and Global Corn Production and Acreage between 1866 and 2015.

Figures 4A and 4B. A) Number of Laborers in the US Mining, Oil and Gas, Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting sector and B) US Corn Production Metrics Per Farm Laborer between 1947 and 2015.

Ethanol Tables

Table 1. Summary of our Corn Ethanol Production, Land-Use, and Water Demand analysis

Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Bushels of Corn Needed 6,374,148,571
Percent of US Production 44.73%
Land Needed 104,372,023 acres
“” 163,081 square miles
Percent of Contiguous US Land 5.51%
Percent of US Agricultural Land 11.28%
Gallons of Water Needed 49.76 trillion (i.e. 3.55 million swimming pools)
Gallons of Water Per Gallon of Oil 2,788
Average and Total Site/Industry Capacity
Average Corn Ethanol Production Per Existing or Under Construction Facility (n = 257) 69,717,250
Gallons of Corn Ethanol Produced Per Year 17,847,616,000
Difference Between 2022 Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 36 Billion Gallon Mandate 18,152,384,000
# of New Refineries Necessary to Get to 2022 Levels 260
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 1.7
IEA 2009 World Energy Outlook 250-620% Increase Predictions for 2030
250% 44,619,040,000
# of New Refineries Necessary 640
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 150.00
620% 110,655,219,200
# of New Refineries Necessary 1,587
Percent Increase Over Current Facility Inventory 520.00

Table 2. Global Population Growth and Corn and Soybean Productivity Trends.

Percent Change Metric
+1.13% Global Population Growth Trend
Corn (Bushels Per Acre)
+1.15% Per Year United States
+1.20% Per Year Global
Soybean (Tons Per Acre)
+0.9% Per Year United States
+1.5% Per Year Brazil
Palm Oil (Tons)
+5.1% Per Year Indonesia
+2.7% Per Year Malaysia

References and Footnotes

  1. Ethanol as defined in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Corporation Franchise Tax 5733.46 means “fermentation ethyl alcohol derived from agricultural products, including potatoes, cereal, grains, cheese whey, and sugar beets; forest products; or other renewable resources, including residue and waste generated from the production, processing, and marketing of agricultural products, forest products, and other renewable resources that meet all of the specifications in the American society for testing and materials (ASTM) specification D 4806-88 and is denatured as specified in Parts 20 and 21 of Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations.”
  2. A) Pyrolysis is included in the biofuel category and involves the anaerobic decay of cellulose rich feedstocks such as switchgrass at high temperatures producing synthetic diesel or syngas, and
    B) According to many researchers biofuels made from waste biomass or crops grown on degraded and abandoned lands with warm-season prairie grasses and legumes incur little or no carbon debt and provide “immediate and sustained Greenhouse Gas (GHG) advantages” by rehabilitating soil health and capturing, rather than emitting by way of increased fertilizer use, various forms of nitrogen including N2O, NO3, and NO2.
  3. According to Fred Magdoff, the ethanol complex is lobbying for “more automobile engines capable of using E-85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) for which there are currently 2,710 fueling stations across the country although 56% of them are in just nine states: 1) Wisconsin (117), 2) Missouri (107), 3) Minnesota (335), 4) Michigan (174), 5) Indiana (172), 6) Illinois (221),  7) Iowa (193), 8) Texas (99), and 9) Ohio (97). Some states are mandating a mixture greater than 10 percent. Ethanol can’t be shipped together with gasoline in pipelines because it separates from the mixture when moisture is present, so it must be trucked to where it will be mixed with gasoline.” The E-85 blend comes with its own costs including higher emissions of CO, VOC, PM10, SOx, and NOx than gasoline.
  4. McClaugherty, C., Auch, W. Genshock, E. and H. Buzulencia. (2017). Landscape impacts of infrastructure associated with Utica shale oil and gas extraction in eastern Ohio, Ecological Society of America, 100th Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, August, 2015.
  5. Hill et al. recently indicated “Ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel yields 93% more.”
  6. An additional 9-10 refineries or 73% of all ethanol refineries are within 25 miles of the Mississippi River Basin.

By Ted Auch, PhD, Great Lakes Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo, left: Oil and gas well pad, Ohio. Photo by Ted Auch.
Cover photo, right: A typical ethanol plant in West Burlington, Iowa. Photo by Steven Vaughn.

Data Downloads

Click on the links below to download the datasets used to create the maps in this article.

  1. Detailed US Ethanol water, land, chemical fertilizer, and herbicide demand
  2. Estimates of North American Ethanol Refinery’s water and land-use demand
Frac sand mining from the sky in Wisconsin

Fracking in Dairy Country

A dairy farmer in Wisconsin reflects upon a new industry in town: frac sand mining, how it is perceived, and where the industry is headed.

By Paul Jereczek
Jereczek Homestead Dairy, Dodge, Wisconsin

In 4th grade, every Wisconsin student learns about their state. Topics pertaining to Wisconsin’s economy, geography, and history along with ethnicity and traditions are introduced and explored. State facts and anecdotes are discussed and naturally memorized. The one that stood out to me the most was how Wisconsin became known as the “Badger State.”

The origin of the badger nickname is from mining. The 4th grade story I remember was that miners were too busy to build houses so they moved into abandoned mineshafts and/or dug their own burrows. These men became known as “badgers.” The 4th grade version of myself thought that was real impressive. I pictured strong, hard working men fiercely toiling away in the earth like mythical creatures, helping make Wisconsin what it is today.

It made for a great story.

Back to Reality

The reality and documentation of the times suggests something different. Most miners lived in cabins or other structures above ground. There most certainly were a few outliers on the fringe of mining society who burrowed their own holes or lived in abandoned underground mines, but the adult version of myself has a hard time imagining that the term used to describe such men – badgers – was used as a compliment.

Either way, the result is the same. Word spread and eventually Wisconsin became known as the Badger State. The state may be known worldwide for its cheese and agriculture, but there was mining in Wisconsin long before the first dairy cow. While the state was earning its nickname, mining was a prominent reason for the early success of the region.

Dairy Farming in WI

The 700 acre Jereczek Homestead Dairy in Dodge Township, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin first established in 1873 and now being operated by the the 6th generation of Jereczeks.

The 700 acre Jereczek Homestead Dairy in Dodge Township, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin first established in 1873 and now being operated by the 6th generation of Jereczeks.

Our farm is in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin – a driftless area – meaning the land was not covered by glaciers during the last ice age. The terrain is hilly and uneven, with tree-topped bluffs and hills overlooking valleys. The valleys, ranging from deep and narrow to wide and shallow, bump and flow into each other. Over the years, our farm has received its fair share of breaker rock, crushed rock, and gravel from the prevalent rock quarries. Sandstone deposits are huge and close to the surface. As a kid, there was a ledge in the cow pasture, where I hunted through chunks of sandstone for fossils.

As with everything else in the world, dairy farming continues to change. Most barns sit derelict and hold only memories of cows as they fade into the landscape. Small farms that clung to the valley walls have been sold to bigger operations, sit vacant, or have been built over. A lot of once prime farmland has been converted into houses with ridiculously large lawns. In 1990, Wisconsin had over 34,000 licensed dairy herds. Now there are just over 9,000.

We are the last dairy farm in our valley. Parallel to the trend, my childhood herd of 40 cows has turned to 200, which is about an average-sized herd. Margins are tighter than ever. Consistent help is hard to find. Milk prices are a terrible rollercoaster ride – it seems to take forever for them to go up, but when they fall, it’s fast and sickening. In the dairy business world, survival is a measure of success.

Frac Sand Mining Perceptions

Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines, Processing Facilities, and Related Operations

Wisconsin Frac Sand Mines, Processing Facilities, and Related Operations

The term frac sand is relatively new to me. I always assumed sand was sand and had given the word sand a negative connotation. Sand’s large particles don’t hold moisture or nutrients well, so sandy fields tend to perform poorly. But what if that sand has value for something else? What if there is a market for this sand much like a market for corn or soybeans?

Farmers tend to be resourceful. Every asset is scrutinized and employed to the fullest. Every acre is pushed. But what about what may lie beneath the soil? Sand mining has been going on in Wisconsin for well over a hundred years, but the recent surge in fracking has created an enormous demand for frac sand – and there are many people and companies set to take advantage of the boom.

Top U.S. Destinations for Wisconsin's Frac Sands Estimated from Superior Silica Sands' 2015 SEC 10Ks

Top U.S. Destinations for Wisconsin’s Frac Sands Estimated from Superior Silica Sands’ 2015 SEC 10Ks

Trempealeau County has zoning and planning ordinances to protect its industries and way of life. These aggressive ordinances allow more citizen input than other county’s ordinances. Public hearings are required, and orderly processes are enforced. With the economics involved with frac sand mining, citizens got educated very quickly. Much like abortion or immigration, frac sand has become a polarizing subject. Strong emotions built up by personal ideologies have pushed this topic to a boiling point. The for and against groups trade barbs without much convincing being done on either side. Frac sand mining editorials are common in local papers with those against appearing to be the most vocal and emotional.

New Player, New Approach

One such editorial detailed the approach a sand company took to obtaining a property. A local farmer had a sand mine company representative approach him with an oversized check written out to him for a sizable amount of money for his land. It was as though the sand rep was taking a page out of the Publishers Clearing House’s playbook. The farmer turned down the check. The sand rep left and returned a short time later with a significantly larger offer. The farmer was equally surprised and insulted. He found out later a few neighbors turned down similar proposals.

So what’s the deal with such a brazen approach? Intentions from this company may well have been good. Many people believed the sand mines were a win-win opportunity. Companies were selling hype – there was no way for anything but success. Extreme optimism. Sand mines were going to increase the tax base, fund schools and roads. Concerns were minimized, and residents were told what they wanted to hear. Such talk produced plenty of skeptics.

Environmental Costs of Frac Sand Mining

With both dairying and fracking, there is an environmental cost. Whether you milk 10, 100, or 1,000 cows – there are environmental pressures. With sand mining, the environmental effects are well documented. It is important, if not just practical, to measure these with the fiscal rewards. And where does this money go and who benefits the most? But, most importantly, who must deal with the consequences?

The risks of sand mines can be mitigated if proper regulations are taken seriously. With the extra scrutiny, a magnifying glass was placed over the sand mines, and what was found only proved the skeptics right. Trapping or pooling storm water seemed to be a learning process for sand mine companies; reported in 2012, every operating sand mine in Trempealeau County had storm water runoff violations. In 2014, over half of the sand mines in all of Wisconsin had violated environmental regulations imposed by the Department of Natural Resources. Add to this loss of surrounding property values, damage to roads, and a damper on quality of life – and you’ll create a substantial amount of public backlash.

Regulations Have Their Place

As was mentioned earlier, mining Is not new to the state. There are many multi-generational mining companies who have the experience, tradition, and financial network to abide by current standards and environmental regulations. Nobody likes to be told what to do. No industry is out there begging for more regulations. Often, the rules are in place to protect – not hinder – those that use environmentally safe and humane practices. Dairying has its own unique regulations – some are good, some not so much, and some downright stupid. Yet, overall it can be argued that these regulations protect the industry and the environment.

One heated topic in the dairy industry involves the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk. It is illegal for any dairy in the state to sell raw milk. I have been drinking raw milk straight from the bulk tank since before I can remember. Our whole family did. Now, I still drink it and so do all my children from the age of a year and a half on up. None of us has ever had trouble with it. However, I am in complete agreement that the sale of raw milk should be illegal. All it takes is for one child to get terribly sick (which most certainly would happen) and for that kid lying on a hospital bed being blasted by every news network in the nation. These images create strong negative emotions that reverberate throughout society. The potential costs far outweigh the economic benefits from such a sale. Sure, some people are upset, but the greater good is maintained by taking away a risky practice.

The same principle works for mining. Rules and regulations get negative press and reaction, but who stands to lose the most from environmental catastrophes related to mining – the company in business 90-some years or the startup mining ventures trying to capture lightning in a bottle? Some companies have built years of trust and compatibility and support for their local communities. These are businesses that will remain after the sand rush has fizzled.

Booms and Busts, Ups and Downs

The frac sand industry is going through the same economic cycle as the dairy industry. The sand companies are getting better at what they do and increase their production capacity. Like milk, sand is a commodity. As the price of sand decreased, production increased to maintain profits. The dairy industry does the same thing, by expanding and improving efficiency to get more milk to catch those dollars slipping away. However, when the market is flush with milk or bombed with sand, they’re just doing more damage to themselves. This is a simplified take on the industry, as there are many global factors that come into play, but the overall pattern tends to remain. As the dairy industry can attest, this fluctuating cycle is not sustainable for all producers.

Primary and Secondary US Silica Sand Geologies and Existing Frac Sand Mines

Primary and Secondary US Silica Sand Geologies and Existing Frac Sand Mines

Worse yet for the sand industry, this cycle has occurred in hyper speed. At first, just the small mines cut production. Outcompeted by larger operations, production at smaller mines was no longer profitable. Soon, the larger mines cut production due to the weakening demand. Many mines in the permit or early production phases never got started. Unlike the dairy industry, there was no rollercoaster effect because prices have yet to return to prior levels. The bubble, it seems, had popped.

With any kind of new mine developed comes the environmental impacts. Yet, I find the fervent negative reaction to such practices directly related to the end result. Fracking. Fracking isn’t magic. They’re not just mixing water with this sand and forcing oil and gas out of the ground. Harmful chemicals are being added to the mix. Worst yet, the quantity and potency of such chemicals is kept secret, closely guarded from the public. Harmful chemicals are being legally pumped into the ground. All the short-term gains will have long-term consequences. This is where I believe a significant backlash for new mines comes from. The end result. Can you imagine what the public’s perception of dairy farms would be if milk was mixed with chemicals and pumped into the ground?

The Future of Dairy Farming in Wisconsin

The 2016 presidential election has breathed some life into the frac sand industry. The new president promises to cut regulations interfering with business, and thus far has kept those promises. The environment will not be a detriment to his goals. Sand companies are returning with ads in the local papers, looking for qualified applicants and offering great salaries. In contrast, the dairy industry is stuck in a rollercoaster spiral. Milk prices have been too low for far too long. The dairy dispersal continues with some very good cows being sold and very good dairymen and women calling it quits. Naturally, some land will be sold. To what end remains to be seen. But it is a safe bet, the frac sand mining ride has not ended.

Energy-related story maps

Energy-Related Story Maps for Grades 6-10

Over the past half year, FracTracker staffer Karen Edelstein has been working with a New York State middle school teacher, Laurie Van Vleet, to develop a series of interdisciplinary, multimedia story maps addressing energy issues. The project is titled “Energy Decisions: Problem-Based Learning for Enhancing Student Motivation and Critical Thinking in Middle and High School Science.” It uses a combination of interactive maps generated by FracTracker, as well as websites, dynamic graphics, and video clips that challenge students to become both more informed about energy issues and climate change and more critical consumers of science media.

Edelstein and VanVleet have designed energy-related story maps on a range of topics. They are targeted at 6th through 8th grade general science, and also earth science students in the 8th and 10th grades. Story map modules include between 10 and 20 pages in the story map. Each module also includes additional student resources and worksheets for students that help direct their learning routes through the story maps. Topics range from a basic introduction to energy use, fossil fuels, renewable energy options, and climate change.

The modules are keyed to the New York State Intermediate Level Science Standards. VanVleet is partnering with Ithaca College-based Project Look Sharp in the development of materials that support media literacy and critical thinking in the classroom.

Explore each of the energy-related story maps using the links below:

Energy-related story maps

Screenshot from Energy Basics story map – Click to explore the live story map

This unique partnership between FracTracker, Project Look Sharp, and the Ithaca City School District received generous support from IPEI, the Ithaca Public Education Imitative. VanVleet will be piloting the materials this fall at Dewitt and Boynton Middle Schools in Ithaca, NY. After evaluating responses to the materials, they will be promoted throughout the district and beyond.

New York: A Sunshine State!

Photovoltaic solar resources of the US (NREL)

Photovoltaic solar resources of the US (NREL)

It’s difficult to talk about the risks of oil and gas extraction without providing data on energy alternatives in the conversation. Let’s look at New York State, as an example. There, solar power is taking a leadership position in the renewable energy revolution in the United States. Although New York State receives far less sunshine than many states to the west and south, the trends are bright! Currently, New York State ranks seventh in the nation in installed solar capacity, with over 700 MW of power generated by the sun, enough to power 121,000 homes.

Despite common assumptions that solar power only makes sense where the sun shines 360 days a year, we’ve been seeing successful adoption of solar in Europe for years. For example, in Germany, where even the most southern part of the country is further north of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State, close to 7% of all the power used comes from combined residential and commercial scale photovoltaic sources–35.2 TWh in all. Munich, one of the sunniest places in all of Germany, has a lower average solar irradiation rate of 3.1 kWh/m2/day than most cities in New York State; compare it with locations in New York like Rochester (3.7 kWh/m2/day), New York City (4.0 kWh/m2/day), and Albany (3.8 kWh/m2/day). At present, Germany still leads New York State by more than double the electrical output from solar for equivalent areas.


Cumulative Solar Capacity in New York

The cumulative capacity for completed photovoltaic systems in New York State has risen steeply in the past three years, with ground-mounted and roof-top residential capacity outpacing commercial capacity by a wide margin.

Nonetheless, commercial and industrial scale installations in New York account for over 100 MW of power capacity in the state.

Large-Scale Solar Installations Map

This map shows the location of those large-scale solar installations in the US (zoom out to see full extent of US), as of March 2016. Here is our interactive map:

View map full screen | How FracTracker maps work

In the past fifteen years, the increase in small to medium-sized solar installations in New York State has been significant, and growth is projected to continue.  The following animation, based on data from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), shows that increase in capacity (by zip code) since 2000:


Solar Installations by Zip Code

NYSERDA also provides maps that show distributions of residential, governmental/NGO, and commercial solar energy projects (images shown below). For example, Suffolk County leads the way in the residential arena, with nearly 8200 photovoltaic (PV) systems on roofs and in yards, with an average size of 8.3 kW each.

Erie County has 128 PV systems run by governmental and not-for-profit groups, with an average size of about 27 kW each. Albany County has over 320 commercial installations, with an average size each of about 117 kW.

New York State’s Future Solar Contribution


Price of Completed Solar Systems 2003-2016

The prices of solar panels is steeply declining, and is coupled with generous tax incentives. The good news, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), is that over the next five years, New York State’s solar capacity is expected to quadruple its current output, adding over 2900 MW of power. This change would elevate New York State from seventh to fourth place in output in the US.

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

2016 New FracTracker Logo

Welcome to FracTracker Alliance 2.0

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance

The understanding of fracking’s harms has grown dramatically in the last decade, especially since FracTracker’s formation in 2010. Across the country and around the world, environmental and human health impacts of oil and gas development have been well documented. Every day brings new cause for concern.

During this same period, scientific and public awareness about the consequences and causation of climate change has accelerated and we watch with trepidation as profound changes grip our planet. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have eclipsed 400 ppm. Temperature records are repeatedly broken. Weather extremes have become routine.

These tragic realities aren’t acceptable. Nationally and internationally, hundreds – if not thousands – of organizations are working on these issues and speaking out for transparency, accountability, and progress. Progress means informed populations, responsible policies, and an aggressive shift to renewable energy while embracing efficiency. Great things are happening. The future demands boldness.

FracTracker has always been a data-driven resource for all – to educate, empower, and catalyze positive change. The Alliance in our name underscores that we are an ally with the multitudes in that quest, but the weight of the times requires us to revisit our mission statement (below) and sharpen our message to better convey what we do and why we do it. A new logo and tagline reinforce our pronouncement.

FracTracker Alliance studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development to protect the planet and support the renewable energy transformation.

So, welcome to the freshened words and appearance of the FracTracker Alliance. We’re the same trusted organization but striving to be bolder, to make a bigger difference for us all. The future is now.

New FracTracker Alliance 2.0 Logo without tagline

If you have questions about these organizational changes, please email us at, or call +1 202-630-6426.

Coal fired power plants in North America

NYS targets an end to coal power

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator

It’s been just over a year since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made public his administration’s decision to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state. A formal ban was established in June 2015. While Cuomo’s politics and record may be controversial on some fronts, he has most certainly shown important leadership in some facets of energy policy. Significantly, activists and environmental advocacy groups have been especially strong during the Cuomo administration, pressing the governor daily to take seriously the responsibility and planning that New York State must demonstrate in light of the realities of climate change.

On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State address. Among the high points of the talk was a commitment to a full phase-out of coal-burning power plants by 2020. Coal, once more affordable alternative to other fossil fuels, is no longer an attractive option from both an economic and environmental standpoint. Despite advances in scrubber technology, coal burning still emits more particulate waste into the atmosphere than other fuels, and leaves behind copious quantities of fly ash containing radioactivity and heavy metals. Historically, fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and flue gas desulfurization materials have been disposed of in landfills. While current disposal methods using landfill liner technologies do attempt to safeguard against groundwater contamination, during earlier decades, these waste products from burning coal were buried in unlined pits, some of which are now actively leaching into waterways and groundwater.

Existing coal burning power plants being shut down, but what’s next?

In New York State, many old, polluting coal plants are now only partially in service or completely shuttered. They did at one time, however, have the capacity to supply over 2100 MW of power to the state. While it’s generally accepted from an economic and environmental standpoint that New York should be transitioning away from coal, the next steps are more fraught with controversy. Several communities, such as those around the likely-to-be-closed Dunkirk (Chautauqua County, 520 MW),  as well as Huntley (Niagara County, 380 MW), and Cayuga (Tompkins County, 315 MW) power plants feel that a repowering of these plant with natural gas provides an important economic stabilizer for the surrounding communities. Another smaller coal-burning plant, Greenidge Generation (Seneca County, 107 MW) has been shuttered for several years. A recent local economic development initiative to re-start that plant with a conversion to natural gas met with considerable resistance from environmental groups. This development also resulted in a notification from the US Environmental Protection Agency indicating that proper procedure for restarting the plant had not been followed, setting back the timetable on the project indefinitely.

Coal Burning Power Plants in North America, Zoomed in to NYS

View full screen map | How to work with our maps

Cayuga Power, which has been operating at a deficit for several years as a coal burning plant, is subsidized through a surcharge that is levied on every ratepayer within the system, with each monthly bill. According to The Sierra Club, these subsidies amount to over $4M a month charged to NYSEG ratepayers for the Cayuga plant, alone. Elected officials, as well as citizen groups concerned with the impacts of natural gas on the environment, are pressing for other viable options to repowering the plant from coal to natural gas, currently estimated to cost over $500M for the Cayuga Plant, alone. These options include solar power – or, in the case of the Cayuga power plant, upgrades to a short stretch of transmissions lines for less than $100M, in lieu of repowering. In either case, the upgrade costs would be passed on to the consumer. Transmission line upgrades would actually obviate the need for the power plant itself, conserving the energy that is now lost through inefficiencies in the system. Repowering the plant would also necessitate the construction of a highly controversial 7-mile-long pipeline from the Town of Dryden, which would significantly raise the carbon footprint of Tompkins County through due to predicted fugitive methane emissions. The power utility, itself, New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) has said that they prefer the option of upgrading the lines, rather than converting the plant to run on natural gas. Another study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis also found the Cayuga repowering proposition unviable. Proponents of repowering cite the impacts that shutting down the plant would have on the local Lansing School district, which–unlike any of the surrounding school districts–has benefited for several decades from tax revenues generated by the plant.

Environmental concerns about continuing to invest in fossil fuel technologies like natural gas as an alternative to coal include the entire life cycle of methane extraction, from the air and water quality risks that occur during the process of unconventional drilling (high volume hydraulic fracturing), to environmental and public health impacts of pipelines and compressor stations that convey the gas to the power plants, to the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere as a byproduct of natural gas combustion at these fossil-fuel burning plants.

Of course, energy conservation and making lifestyle changes to how we individually, and collectively, approach energy consumption are at the heart of the changes that need to occur if we are to slow climate change caused by the dramatic upswing of methane and CO2 in the atmosphere during the past 50 years.

New York State’s Renewable Energy Agenda

Cuomo and the State Legislature have shown additional and ongoing interest in moving New York towards a clean energy future. They have been establishing appealing tax incentives for renewable energy, including:

Cuomo’s REV, or Reforming the Energy Vision, attempts to take a comprehensive look at an energy strategy across many sectors of New York. REV targets for 2030 include a goal of 50% of all NYS’s energy being met by renewable sources, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas levels based on 1990 levels (and an overall emission cut of 80% by 2050), and based on 2012 levels, a 25% reduction on building energy use. The strategy also looks to support the growth of the clean energy sector, energy education to residents and businesses, natural resources protection, and job creation in the energy sector.

New York is taking important steps for a cleaner energy future, but should continue to put more resources towards incentives for renewable resources, as well as outreach and education to municipal, residential, and commercial energy consumers.

We have very little time to waste.


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