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Coal Plant Killed, What’s Next for Rogers City?

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As its limestone quarry and ore freighter fleet lost business, a new marina helped Rogers City shift toward tourism. But the town’s economy remains badly depressed.

Word reached our office late Friday that the state turned down Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative’s proposed Rogers City coal plant.

Almost three years ago, we started working with a truly extraordinary group of people and national, state, and local organizations to stop the plant. That was in July, 2007, when two interns and I headed to Rogers City to interview local officials about the project and report to you and our other members and readers about it.

We found a town where most everyone fiercely supported the plant, though they did not know much about it. Desperate for economic development, they saw the 50 or 100 permanent jobs the plant would bring as pure gold. Who could ever blame them?

But we also found brave people willing to speak out, against overwhelming social pressure, and say what needed to be said-that there was no need for the plant; that it would change Rogers City profoundly, and for the worse; that it would, sooner or later, damage the community’s health by harming its air and water; and that it would greatly boost electricity rates for 200,000 Michigan families and businesses.

Those first and last points won the day with the state, which determined that Wolverine has other, cheaper, cleaner options for obtaining power, and that the plant would increase the cost of its customers’ electricity by close to 60 percent.

So, if you get your power from the Cherryland, Great Lakes, HomeWorks, or Presque Isle co-op, the state just saved you lots of money. And if you care about our shared future, be glad that it’s another nail in the coffin of the coal industry, which is struggling to save an obsolete technology that damages people, communities, land, water, wildlife, our climate-and slows our transition to an utterly necessary clean-energy economy.

The best part: The decision sends a strong message that, finally, Michigan may be ready to do what needs to be done-move beyond coal toward a jobs-rich clean-energy future. Once, we put the world on wheels; now, it’s time we put the world on clean energy. It’s the most important thing on the planet’s “to do” list, and we should-no, we must-lead it, even with China’s big head start.

But I feel no glee about this “victory.” In fact, I’m a little sad. I have spent summers near Rogers City since before I could walk. What I’ve seen happen there is terrible: Good, hard-working people taking hard, hard knocks as their two core employers-the limestone quarry and the ore freighters-faded because the U.S. steel industry decided to leave America behind.

This new plant was to be their lifeline, their way to turn around a city that, economically, has been on the ropes for years, reeling from the terrible effects of globalization.

My hope-my prayer, really-is that, as they try to figure out what to do next, Wolverine, local officials, and area residents see the handwriting on the wall.

The Rogers City plant is, I believe, the 120th one cancelled in the U.S. in the last several years. The American wind industry now employs more people than the American coal industry. The rest of the world-led by China-is headed away from coal as quickly as it can. This is not ideology. It is not a prediction. It is a fact.

Wolverine should invest the $1.3 billion it was going to spend on coal on efficiency measures for all of its customers, and charge them for it. Everyone will save money, and lots of people will get good, long-lasting jobs.

It should redesign its business model to make efficiency, not consumption, its revenue source. It’s called “decoupling”-and it’s the wave of the future.

It should move full speed ahead with finding the windiest areas in northeastern Lower Michigan and Lake Huron and get to work on putting up turbines.

It should think way outside the box about that quarry: It could house anything from a wind turbine manufacturing plant to a huge hydro-energy storage pond, like the one in Ludington, but pumped full for later release by wind power, not coal power.

It’s time for northeast Lower Michigan to focus like a laser beam on its own clean-energy future. There’s lots of money, expertise, experience, and resources available, and more on the way every day, to make big, clean, renewable energy projects happen.

There are many thousands of jobs, not a mere 100, waiting for communities that re-invent their future to include clean energy. Ask California. Ask Colorado. Ask Illinois and Minnesota and Iowa. Ask Denmark and Spain and Germany and, for cryin’ out loud, ask China, which is trying hard to steal the whole show.

But there are no jobs waiting for those who continue to re-embrace the past.

Rogers City, like the rest of the state, is in crisis mode. But in Rogers City, the crisis has been afoot for almost 40 years. The thing to remember about the word crisis-which is supposedly Chinese-is that it means both danger andopportunity.

The danger of harming Rogers City with a coal plant may be passing, although the danger of despair, inaction, or refusing to give up on coal still linger.

But the opportunity for a new, clean-energy future is there, ready to be embraced.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s managing editor. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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