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Video, New Candidates Enliven Cherryland Board Race

One questions coal, another opposes it and demands better accounting

April 29, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The video challenges Cherryland Electric Cooperative and Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, which want to build a coal plant in Rogers City.
TRAVERSE CITY—As Cherryland Electric Cooperative prepares to hold its annual board of directors election, an advocacy group demanding more transparency from the utility is enlivening the usually sleepy race with a new video detailing the firm’s involvement in a controversial coal-fired power plant proposed for Rogers City.

The video, Cherryland Electric: Getting Back on Track, was posted on the group’s Web page at Co-opConversations.org last week. The page urges Cherryland customers to watch the video and vote in the election, which typically draws participation levels of less than 1 percent.

Ballots for the board election will be sent to Cherryland members next week in a monthly magazine the co-op sponsors. The video endorses one of the candidates, Maureen Charbonneau, an area resident who opposes the coal plant and who wants Cherryland to reveal more information about its involvement in the project.

Using penciled-in cartoons and a real-life narrator who identifies herself as “Jaimie,” the video explains that Cherryland and five other “retail” co-ops in Michigan own Wolverine Power Supply Co-operative Inc. The Cadillac-based company, which purchases power from downstate companies and redistributes it to the retailers, is pushing to build the coal plant, which is still being scrutinized by the state.

Regulators have so far determined that there is no demand for the new electricity that the plant would provide. Meanwhile, many of the plant’s critics maintain that new state energy efficiency mandates should permanently eliminate the need for future coal plants.

The video narrator points out that Wolverine has assembled a $70 million fund from monthly charges on retail co-op members’ bills, and has spent $28 million from the fund to support its coal plant project. But, according to Jaimie, Cherryland and Wolverine are still refusing to release details of exactly how it is spending its customers’ money, despite efforts by some members at last year’s annual meeting to require more transparency. The video also says that Wolverine has not publicly revised its original, 2006 estimate of the cost of its proposed plant, or publicly stated how the plant would affect members’ electricity rates.

Wolverine has consistently refused to speak with reporters from the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service about its project since GLBNS first reported on it, in 2007.

But the video’s narrator points to a report by T.R. Rose and Associates, commissioned several years ago by the non-profit Michigan Energy Alternatives Project. The report found that the new plant would likely more than double its member’s electricity rates. Jamie also points out that a 40-year power purchase contract between Cherryland and Wolverine eliminates any possibilities of buying power from other, less-pricey sources if the Rose predictions of sharply higher rates turn out to be true.

‘Increase Member Involvement’
The video’s endorsement of Ms. Charbonneau—a Grand Traverse County resident—could inject new life into what is traditionally a very low-profile co-op election that routinely re-elects current board members.

Ms. Charbonneau said she is running for the Cherryland Board of Directors because she believes the member-owned cooperative needs to head in a different direction, one that does not involve new coal plants, when it comes to energy production and use.

Ms. Charbonneau’s resume says that she has worked for years in small business consulting and management. In an interview, she said she wants to increase co-op member participation in elections and work for more transparency in how Cherryland makes decisions and spends its customers’ money.

“I’m running to give members a voice in their co-op and on the board, and I want members to be educated on what’s going on at their co-op,” Ms. Charbonneau said. “I want to increase member involvement.”

Cherryland officially backs Wolverine’s plan to build a large, 600 MW coal plant in a limestone quarry near the Lake Huron shoreline, adjacent to Rogers City. When it rolled out its plan in 2006, Wolverine estimated that the plant would cost about $1.2 billion, and has not publicly changed that figure since then, although the Rose report and other studies suggest the cost could be significantly higher—perhaps as much as $2 billion.

Ms. Charbonneau said she’s concerned the coal plant in Rogers City could have a dramatic impact on electric bills.

“Obviously I would hate to see a coal plant built,” she said. “It’s not necessary. It harms the environment and there are so many options these days with clean energy and energy efficiency.”

Ms. Charbonneau earned a masters degree in business administration from Simmons School of Management in 1988. Since then she says she’s supervised new product-testing programs, developed new office and retail space, and helped turn around an unprofitable real estate business.

She helped launch Co-opConversation.org 18 months ago, as a site concentrating on member advocacy within electric co-ops in Michigan. The site has since expanded to provide communication and advocacy services to co-ops in other states as well. Ms. Charbonneau also recently worked for the Michigan Land Use Institute, providing research on state and federal energy efficiency policies and local energy efficiency auditing and installation services.

‘Unwise to Build a Coal Plant’
Like Ms. Charbonneau, another Traverse-area resident, Dan Paulson, is running for the Cherryland board for the first time.

Mr. Paulson is a longtime “green” developer and the former dean of the now-closed Jordan College Energy Institute. He is the developer of Cedar Valley Ridge, eight miles west of Traverse City, which is certified by a national homebuilders trade association as a four-star green subdivision.

Mr. Paulson said he wants to work with Cherryland’s board to help chart the best course for the cooperative.

“I’ve met with the board of Cherryland,” he said. “They are a great group of people, very committed.”

Mr. Paulson said he will approach the board with an open mind but, at this point, he says that he, too, has reservations about the coal plant proposal.

“My view is it would be unwise to build a coal plant that will last for decades,” he said, “when the energy production market is in such a dramatic transition. I don’t think it’s a wise thing to do.”

The two incumbents that Ms. Charbonneau and Mr. Paulson are challenging in the election, Melinda Lautner and John Olson, did not respond to email requests for interviews for this story. Their biographies are available on the Cherryland Web site.

Co-op members will be able to cast their vote by mail using a ballot enclosed in the May edition of Country Lines magazine. Or, they can also vote at Cherryland’s annual meeting, scheduled for June 16, at Wuerfel Park, in Traverse City, preceding a Beach Bums minor league baseball game. Members who attend the meeting receive free tickets to the game.

Ms. Charbonneau said that only a small percentage of members of Cherryland actually vote in their election each year. Last year, slightly more than 1,700 people voted in their electric cooperative’s annual election; the co-op has approximately 34,000 members.

“Many of the people I’ve spoken with don’t realize that the ballot is included in the May issue of Country Lines,” she said. “They can mail it in.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. View the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service archive covering Wolverine’s coal plant proposal, Michigan’s coal rush, evolving clean-energy policies and technologies, and national developments here.

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