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Citizens Aim to Block Snyder's Coal Rush

Groups sue, criticize state over proposed Holland, Rogers City plants

June 12, 2011 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A freighter loads coal bound for Holland’s currently operating coal-fired power plant.

At a time when some utilities are crossing new coal plants off their “to-build” lists, clean energy advocates in Michigan are blasting Governor Rick Snyder for supporting construction of two of the pricey power stations.

The advocates have pushed back in court and at a recent hearing, urging the governor to properly enforce state and federal laws and stop the plants.

In Holland, two citizen groups sued the Snyder administration on May 12 for its approval of the Holland Board of Public Works’ proposed $250 million, 78 MW coal plant.

And in Rogers City, nearly two dozen Michiganders told officials at a May 19 environmental hearing that the administration should block the $1.3 billion, 600 MW coal plant that Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative wants to build there. Coal opponents also launched an online petition urging the governor to stop the plant.

In both instances, citizens criticized Governor Snyder’s Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for not requiring the utilities to supply power via cleaner alternatives—energy efficiency, natural gas generation, and wind power. They also criticized MDEQ for not making the proposed plants use “best available control technology” for toxic emissions and greenhouse gases.

Shannon Fisk, an attorney for one of the groups suing MDEQ over the Holland plant, the Natural Resources Defense Council, says Governor Snyder is violating the federal Clean Air Act, which requires consideration of cleaner alternatives when the public demands it.

“While emission limits are quite important,” Mr. Fisk said, “the threshold questions of whether a pollution source is needed or whether there are cleaner alternatives is critical to protecting air quality and moving us to a cleaner energy future.”

Coal opponents add that Governor Snyder’s refusal to require cleaner alternatives could harm Michigan’s air and water quality and its emerging clean energy sector, an economic bright spot in a state desperate for jobs.

The pushback on Governor Snyder’s coal-friendly decisions, led by the statewide Clean Energy Now coalition, is heating up as public opinion remains firmly against building new coal plants, researchers warn investors to pull back from them, and coal opponents count 150 new plant cancellations over the past decade. Most of the cancellations were triggered by some combination of rising construction and fuel costs, falling electricity demand, regulatory uncertainty, lower natural gas and windpower prices, and strong local opposition.

Even some new coal supporters in Michigan are wavering.

Holland residents are eyeing a consultant’s report, commissioned by the city, that identifies cheaper, cleaner ways to supply energy. And in Rogers City, spokesman Ken Bradstreet told The Alpena News that Wolverine would cancel its plant if, after the company received its permit, the state’s prediction that it would boost electric bills by 60 percent seemed likely.

“It is important that we not build something that could potentially hurt our customers,” Mr. Bradstreet said.

Meanwhile, in Bay City, Consumers Energy continues to leave a proposed 930 MW coal plant, permitted 17 months ago, on indefinite hold due to declining demand. The utility recently told the Michigan Public Service Commission that its new contracts with wind power companies were cheaper than new coal power.

Late last week, in Ohio, American Electric Power Company Inc. announced plans to shutdown one quarter of its fleet of coal pants there and rely more on cleaner, less-expensive natural gas-fired generation to meet new federal pollution standards. Thirty months ago, AEP put a new coal plant in Meigs County on hold, citing higher costs and falling electricity demand.

Does Holland Need Coal?
Clean Energy Now’s legal pushback against the Snyder administration began on May 12, when two of its key members, Sierra Club and NRDC, sued MDEQ for permitting a new, 78 MW plant in Holland.

The citizen suit, lists deficiencies in the permit’s limits on toxic and greenhouse emissions, and says MDEQ must require HBPW to employ cleaner alternatives to meet its electricity needs—including energy efficiency, natural gas generation, and wind power.

In January, the Snyder administration indicated it would defend the cleaner alternatives requirement after a local court said the Granholm administration used it improperly to stop the Holland project. When a second court made a similar ruling concerning the Rogers City plant and ordered the state to issue a new draft permit, Snyder’s MDEQ folded.

Both courts, however, implied that a MDEQ denial letter that explicitly ties cleaner alternatives to better protecting air quality would be legal. The Snyder administration rejects that interpretation, but NRDC attorney Fisk embraces it.

“The federal Clean Air Act is clear,” he said, “that an evaluation of need and alternatives is required as part of the permitting process where, as here, the public has urged the pursuit of cleaner alternatives in order to protect air quality.”

Ironically, Holland’s municipal utility could adopt those cleaner, cheaper alternatives. In January, the Holland Community Sustainability Committee, appointed to review local development policies, convinced the city to hire a consultant to suggest ways to meet energy demand. The report, from Garforth International LLC, offers three scenarios, from business as usual to heavy emphasis on efficiency, natural gas, and renewables.

The committee hosts a town hall meeting at 7 pm on June 20 at Holland City Hall about the study, while the Holland League of Women Voters has already endorsed the scenario that strongly emphasizes efficiency. League board member Sara Leeland said it deserves a major effort.

“We have agreed that using energy efficiency is absolutely important,” Ms. Leeland said, “rather than simply focusing a little bit on it while using coal-based power to provide most future energy.”

Rogers City Redux
In Rogers City, the pushback to the Snyder administration surfaced on May 19, at MDEQ’s Wolverine draft permit hearing.

For the first time in three years of Rogers City coal plant hearings, opposing speakers outnumbered supporting speakers. Joining locals against the plant were CEN members from Ann Arbor, Lansing, Muskegon, Ludington, Bay City, and Traverse City. CEN also submitted extensive written comments to MDEQ.

Elected officials from Presque Isle County, Alpena, Traverse City, Iron River, and Escanaba, plus a Wolverine executive and a company consultant from Houghton backed locals favoring the project.

Supporters touted the 1,500 construction and 75 permanent jobs Wolverine claims the plant would generate, said it met all clean air requirements, and urged prompt permit approval.

Opponents criticized MDEQ for not requiring Wolverine to use the cleanest alternative for meeting energy demand. They warned the plant would fail to meet updated federal clean air and greenhouse gas emission standards, and, because it could burn up to 20 percent biomass, would consume too much of the local wood supply.

“The best solution is to not build the plant,” Sue Harley of Clean Water Action told the hearing. “There are far better energy sources available, including efficiency and wind power, which the Michigan Public Service Commission says are cheaper than power from new coal plants.”

Ms. Harley and others warned that the plant would harm Wolverine’s customers—almost a quarter of whom live close to the poverty line—by boosting utility bills. Others pointed out that, after proposing its plant in 2006, Wolverine purchased shares in an existing coal plant and a natural gas “peaker” plant that could become a full-time facility. All told, Wolverine now owns 200 MW more generating capacity than it uses.

Others said the Snyder administration could do much more for jobs by favoring efficiency and renewables over new coal. 

Call for Clean Jobs and Energy
Clean energy advocates’ steady drumbeat about green jobs is spreading well beyond communities embroiled in coal plant controversies.

On May 25 the BlueGreen Alliance, a national organization of 10 unions—including the United Steelworkers, Utility Workers of America, and the United Auto Workers, and four citizen groups, including Sierra Club and NRDC—sharply attacked Governor Snyder for lacking a clear plan to promote that sector.

AFL-CIO Michigan president Mark Gaffney said the state must stay active in helping to create jobs.

“We think the Republicans in this state are just plan wrong on giving enormous tax breaks to businesses and sitting back and waiting for something to happen,” Mr. Gaffney said.
Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, concurred.

“This administration has been ignoring clean energy to death, and has made it clear that energy isn’t on their radar screen right now, and that’s a concern,” she said.

Ms. Woiwode pointed to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s successful efforts to attract alternative energy and advanced battery manufacturers jobs: “It’s a startling thing to see. Statistics show this is an industry we should be supporting.”

Polls have long indicated that moving away from coal and toward cleaner energy enjoys strong public support. In 2006, a survey by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA, in association with The Detroit News and the MIRS news agency, found strong support for greening the state’s energy supply.

“There was clearly much more support for conservation and alternative forms of energy, including wind and solar [than for coal]” according to EPIC-MRA President Bernie Porn, “as well as a lack of awareness of how much coal generation is currently relied upon for electric power.”

Mr. Porn said the survey found that those surveyed reached “an almost reluctant conclusion that coal generated energy would be necessary to fill electric generation needs until the most favored alternatives were much more developed.”

Public resistance to coal has intensified since then. A 2007 national poll by the Opinion Research Corp. found only 3 percent of those surveyed preferred coal as their electricity source. A similar national poll a year later found three-to-one support for a five-year moratorium on building new coal plants in lieu of stepped-up investment in clean energy.

More recently, polls in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina found similar, lopsided support for using natural gas, hydropower, wind power, or energy efficiency over coal.

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

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