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Keep Politics Out of Traverse City’s Clean Energy Future

Blog Archive | October 27, 2010 | By Brian Beauchamp

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A Traverse City citizen group is distributing lawn signs about that city’s Proposition 1, which would strip decision-making authority from the Traverse City Light & Power Board of Directors.

“Don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater.” Traverse City voters should remember that when considering Proposal 1-which would strip decision-making power from the Traverse City Light & Power board, where it’s been for thirty years, and hand it back to the city commission.

The referendum was placed on the ballot by citizens angry with TCL&P over proposing a biomass power plant within the city and advancing it in ways that left out the public. Citizens were upset at the lack of transparency, for good reason, and launched Proposal 1 & 2.  Plans for a biomass plant have since been scrapped.

We believe TCL&P was trying to be a renewable energy leader. We believe they’ve learned a lesson: the importance of community input in this new era full of game-changers like carbon footprints, green jobs, and new technology. Running TCL&P is no longer about renewing power contracts with downstate coal burners. It’s about being in the middle of a new, rapidly growing and changing economic sector.

During TCL&P’s forums, many residents urged more investment in energy efficiency, wind, and solar. And they rightly demanded inclusion in every step of the discussion.

MLUI supports maximum community participation in energy planning. But putting the city commission in charge of what has become an incredibly complicated beast-an electric utility operating in a near-chaotic technical and policy landscape-risks politicizing and promises to be a challenging, community-based process.

Last year, the former head of Waverly, Iowa’s small municipal utility, Glenn Cannon, was here to recount how they became one of the country’s most efficient-saving residents big energy dollars. He said that it would have been much harder to accomplish 20 percent energy savings-a terrific achievement-if his leadership had been constantly subjected to city politics.

Instead of politics, he and the utility looked to strong community participation to build support for a popular, transparently conceived plan. That takes good communication, clear goals, commitment to shared process, and patience. It doesn’t take elections.

TCL&P’s board structure may need tweaking to reflect the new, clean-energy realities of utility planning and operating. But it’s shortsighted to remove decision-making powers from a group that’s not that interested in politics but very interested in the concept of municipal electric service. And it’s risky to give those powers instead to people whose concerns about TCL&P are just another item on a long list of pressing issues.

The current utility board is well credentialed to make major decisions. They have an energy efficiency expert, a financial professional, an engineer, a former mayor, and several small business owners among them. They aren’t perfect, particularly when it comes to public communication, but they are tuned into today’s energy realities.

If you value clean energy, smart local generation, and pursuing technological and policy innovations that save energy dollars and create new opportunities, vote No on proposal 1 November 2. That allows us to hold onto the baby, stay involved, and change the bathwater on a regular, predictable basis.

Full disclosure: Michigan Land Use Institute received a $10,000 grant from TCL&P’s community fund in early 2008 to underwrite a community guide to energy efficiency, which will be published late this year. Brian Beauchamp is an energy policy specialist for MLUI; reach him at brian@mlui.org.

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