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PIE&G Candidate: Questions on Coal Costs

Vermilya warns that Rogers City plant would harm N.E. Michigan residents

October 8, 2010 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Wayne Vermilya is running for the Presque Isle Electric & Gas board because he says a proposed Rogers City coal plant would sharply raise electricity prices in N.E. Lower Michigan.

Wayne Vermilya, who is running for the Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op Board of Directors, is one of the few officials in northeast Lower Michigan who asks tough questions about the proposed Rogers City coal plant.

Instead of acting as a cheerleader for the project, he warns his neighbors about what the proposed 600 MW plant would do to their electric bills. He frequently urges the plant’s proponents—including Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, the firm that wants to build it—to forget about coal plants and concentrate instead on bringing renewable energy and energy efficiency policies to his jobs-starved corner of the state.

Mr. Vermilya grew up and still lives near Onaway, in the heart of PIE&G’s service area. The Ferris State University grad continues to work as a public servant when he’s not managing a Cheboygan-based recreational boating business. He began his public service as Allis Township’s representative to the Onaway Area Ambulance Board. Since then he’s been an Allis Township trustee, a Presque Isle County commissioner, and currently chairs the Allis Township Planning Commission.

Mr. Vermilya spoke by phone with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service earlier this week about his run for the board of PIE&G, which holds its annual members meeting and election on Friday, Oct. 29, at Onaway High School, at 10 a.m. The small, rural co-op partially owns Wolverine, which is now appealing the state’s denial of an air permit for its proposed coal-, petroleum coke-, and wood-fired power plant.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: Why are you interested in public service?

Wayne Vermilya: It is part of living in the community. People have an obligation to be involved. I got involved at the township level a long time ago, over a local issue—ambulance service. That is when my leadership skills were first recognized. I have been elected to all of the local positions since then, but when redistricting reduced the number of county commissioners, my seat was eliminated. So I haven’t held elected office for the last few years.

GLBNS: So why are you running for the Presque Isle Electric and Gas Board of Directors?

Mr. Vermilya: I attended the air quality permit hearings and the landfill permit hearings for the coal plant, and when this coal plant was first proposed, the first thing that came across my mind was, ‘What is this going to do to my electric bill?

Then I saw the results from that group out in New York [the Sanzillo Report, commissioned by the Michigan Energy Alternatives Project] that estimated the plant could as much as double peoples’ electric bills.

I sat back, listened to the hearings, made comments. But as I talked to more and more people around the region, I found a lot of people who are concerned now about how much it is going to cost them.

People have told me that they ask questions at PIE&G board meetings and are ignored. But they are the stockholders because it’s a co-op, and they should at least be able to get answers.

I’ve had a lot of people call with a lot of questions since I declared my candidacy for the PIE&G board. If I’m on the board, if shareholders have questions they will get answers.

GLBNS: Are you taking much flack for being opposed to the coal plant?

Mr. Vermilya: Hardly any at all. One of my old high school friends saw me in a Labor Day Parade, marching with the Democrats, and he and I bantered back and forth about it. My answer to him was, ‘How much do you want to pay for electricity?’

A lot of people are concerned. There are environmental questions, but mostly they want to know how much it is going to cost.

Then they are really surprised to find out that we are already paying for the plant [via a project development fund surcharge on PIE&G bills], and they can’t get an account for that, either.

GLBNS: What is your view of the organizing that’s been going on to try to stop this plant?

Mr. Vermilya: Well, my point on this is that people in northeast Lower Michigan do appreciate clean air and clean water. But some environmentalists sort of have this tree-hugger stigma that says they are opposed to everything.

But science is science and their arguments about the coal plant are based on scientific facts. Groups like that help to bring out the factual arguments and not worry so much about all of the emotional stuff.

All our local officials were in support of the plant from the beginning, when it was rolled out [in May, 2006]. And you had a situation in the quarry [next to Rogers City, where Wolverine proposes building the plant], where land uses are quite limited, so I can understand politicians supporting something like that.

But most people who testified at the hearings who spoke in support of the plant were more or less being emotional…they really didn’t have facts. It was more about stating a position of desperation. And I don’t think decisions of this magnitude should be made out of desperation.

We need some science. They may disagree, but at least it should be based on the facts as we know them. Putting 45 pounds of mercury into our air every years is a very serious concern. A big increase in electricity cost is a very serious concern.

GLBNS: How are you campaigning?

Mr. Vermilya: I’ve made phone calls to key people I know, movers and shakers in Alpena, Montmorency, Presque Isle and other counties. People look at you like you are kind of strange, but I ask them, ‘How many of your constituents have PIE&G electric meters?’

I can’t knock on everyone’s door. But I say to these people, ‘You know me, you know my background, you sat on commissions with me, and I believe I can bring some fresh ideas to our company [PIE&G].’

And I have had a lot of phone calls. I’m surprised, but there are people all over the region who are excited about me running. I think I will be okay.

GLBNS: But what was the reaction to the letter you sent to the paper when the plant was denied, telling them to ‘suck it up’?

Mr. Vermilya: I made a comment at a Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners meeting on the day Wolverine filed a suit appealing the state’s denial of their air permit. And Mike Darga, a former colleague on that board, kinda got after me a little bit about my position on the plant and that letter.

So, I asked him: From the local township all the way up to the state government structure, who was the only politician who asked what this was going to cost people? The answer is Governor Granholm. She wanted to find out, so she referred it to the Michigan Public Service Commission, and they determined that there was no need for the plant and its cost would be very significant.

So, how much development will there be here if cost of electricity doubled overnight? Probably none. I said that we have some good members on the PIE&G board; I’ve attended meetings and seen that. I can step into the role easily; from time to time you need fresh blood and fresh ideas.

So I told Mike that I was sticking up for his community.

This is a very proud community, and people like Ken Bradstreet [Wolverine’s public relations person for the coal plant project in Rogers City] are making people look like fools. When I said people should ‘suck it up,’ I meant ‘get it together and move on.’ You pick yourself up and you move on.

In fact, I had several very positive phone calls from Rogers City folks thanking me for that letter.

GLBNS: What are you thoughts on other job development opportunities in Presque Isle County, since jobs are the main reason people support the plant?

[In response, Mr. Vermilya released a letter to GLBNS that he recently sent to the Presque Isle County Advance]:

“…The old ways of thinking no longer will work. We’ve heard the catch phrases for years, think outside of the box, look beyond the paradigm, and thrive on the chaos. We are reaching the point where our survival depends upon our being able to evolve.

“Wolverine Power is trying to keep us looking in yesterday’s box for answers to today’s questions. They want to blind us into thinking that we are dependant upon a system of centralized power generation and inefficient distribution over miles of their electric wires.

“The greatest influence that the emerging technologies will have will not be between their power plant and their electric meter, but rather between their electric meter and our appliances.

“If we are smart we will be progressive and we will be proactive. Our member-owned electric and gas cooperative is an important part of our community in many ways. With a little vision we can be leaders in the new green energy economy.

“Together we can electrify the grid in ways that will benefit all of the member/ owners, employ more people, and help solve the climate problem that the status quo tries to get us to ignore.

“For example, a solar array, installed by our cooperative employees and leased to a homeowner for about the same monthly charge as that homeowner is paying now for electricity from the grid, will pay for itself. As member/owners, our cooperative would have to buy less power from the grid and Wolverine Power.

“We would have more capital to invest in our local infrastructure, which in turn would enable us to hire more local people to upgrade our system. The same kind of thing can be done with small-scale, homeowner wind energy systems, though solar is much more consistent. As they say, ‘The solution to our energy problem comes up in the east every morning.’

“Together we can install the green energy solutions and revitalize our communities in much the same way the cooperative effort was used to bring electricity to rural areas, using technology that was new 100 years ago and is now being outdated by today’s new technology, the green-energy economy.”

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

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