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TCL&P Hits Renewables Reset Button

Biomass rejected, utility seeks public’s ideas for a clean-energy plan

July 20, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Friends of Lincoln Lakes
  Its biomass-fired power plant proposal now apparently dead, Traverse City Light & Power is looking for another way to use less coal power and more renewable energy.

In the summer of 2008, Traverse City Light & Power invited the public to share their ideas about the city-owned utility’s future power generation plans.

One person showed up.

The next year, TCL&P, which provides power to roughly 11,000 Traverse City residents, held another, similar meeting, and four people showed up. The company, with little fanfare, then confirmed a very ambitious goal that reflected its determination to use less coal: Getting 30 percent of its power from renewable sources.

The turnout for the utility’s 2010 planning session was no better. So, after listening to energy experts and conducting a customer survey, TCL&P decided that the best way to reach its 30 percent renewables goal was to build up to three small, highly efficient, exceptionally clean-burning wood-gasification power plants.

To the company’s surprise, the proposal exploded into controversy. An ardent group of activists—opposed to burning any biomass under any circumstances—protested loudly.

“We thought biomass was the best solution for the community, but it’s not what the community wants, so we have to reevaluate,” said Ed Rice, TCL&P’s executive director. “We want input from the public.”

So, tomorrow night, the city-owned utility starts over. It holds a study session at 5:15 p.m. at its Hastings Street office, and is inviting the public. Mr. Rice said that the utility wants to understand what kind of local power generation the public will support.

TCL&P’s quandary symbolizes the nationwide struggle over the complex issue of clean energy. Faced with the dire consequences of climate change, the company wanted to move toward cleaner alternatives that would cut CO2 emissions. But it ran straight into a buzz saw of opposition.

A Better Idea?
Meanwhile, TCL&P’s noble 30 percent renewables goal is twisting in the wind. The goal will be very difficult to reach if the utility and the community decide to obtain the crucial baseload power—steady, 24-hour power—that biomass could provide via other means. Those including renewing downstate coal-power contracts or installing hydroelectric, natural gas, or nuclear power; none of these, however, classify as “renewable.”

But as TCL&P confronts the tough problem of providing baseload power without coal—or biomass—the Michigan Land Use Institute continues to urge the company to approach its renewables goal in a different way. In March, the non-profit announced a plan it says would save utility customers money, provide significant local economic stimulus, and reduce the company’s CO2 emission and dependence on coal by as much as 40 percent—a better outcome than the ill-fated biomass idea.

The plan, 20-20 by 2020: A Clear Vision for Clean Energy Prosperity, was produced in league with the Michigan Energy Alternatives Project. It urges TCL&P to invest less in new power plants and more in energy efficiency to cut demand for its power by 20 percent. 20-20 also proposes TCL&P buy 20 percent of its power from wind turbines and solar panels owned by local non-profits, community groups, and private entrepreneurs.

The plan could help TCL&P get out of the box it is currently in as it eyes coal contract renewals and natural gas-fired plants.

In fact, the utility is already hearing some opposition from residents about its natural gas proposal—which would cut CO2 levels to half of what coal emits. The objections revolve around a new method of extracting natural gas, called “fracking.” The technique is unlocking huge new amounts of previously unreachable natural gas buried very deep in the earth. But if the technique is not applied carefully, it can damage aquifers—and drinking water.

‘Why We’re Doing What We’re Doing’
Board members say they realize they are facing a thorny task as they reassess their goals, and the best ways of reaching them.

“We have to reevaluate our plan,” said Jim Carruthers, a TCL&P board member who is also a city commissioner. “We have to figure out how to meet our renewable standard and still account for baseload power. It’s my goal to get us off coal.”

Mike Coco, who chairs the TCL&P board, said the utility is getting pulled in a lot of different directions. He, too, wants to see the utility lead the move away from coal power. Both he and Mr. Carruthers said, however, that some residents also are concerned about paying higher prices for clean energy. Both said they are now questioning whether TCL&P’s “30 by 20” goal is attainable.

“I’m reminding myself that no matter what we choose, no one is going to be happy,” Mr. Coco said. “I’ve recently been getting feedback from some people who are telling me, ‘Just go buy coal. It’s the cheapest. Michigan is down, our energy use and economy is down, so why are we talking about biomass or wind?’”

Arguments over cost claims aside—the price of coal, coal power, and new coal plants are rising steadily, while clean energy costs continue to fall—Mr. Coco doesn’t want to give up on the renewables goal, if possible. He said he wants the utility to be a model for providing clean, cost-efficient energy, and he’s asking the public to attend Wednesday night’s meeting.

At the same time, he, Mr. Rice, and Mr. Carruthers say the now realize they must do a better job of communicating the utility’s goals and keeping in touch with what citizens want the utility to do.

“We need more citizen involvement earlier on,” Mr. Coco said. “We need to do a better job effectively communicating information, and we need to find a mechanism to determine what the community wants and we need to remind the community why we are doing what we are doing.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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