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Energy Pro Runs for Great Lakes Co-op Board

Evans says efficiency provides cheaper, cleaner power than a Rogers City coal plant

June 27, 2011 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Ric Evans, an energy efficiency expert and teacher at Northwestern Michigan College, says conservation would help customers save money and avoid building a costly coal plant.

Ric Evans has big ideas for alternatives to the proposed Rogers City coal plant for supplying his electric co-op with power.

Instead of adding to the roughly $22 million already invested in the plant's development, this candidate for the Great Lakes Energy Cooperative Board of Directors advocates large-scale improvements in residential and commercial energy efficiency.

If GLE invested that sort of money in energy optimization, he says, it could so drastically reduce its baseload power demand—the kind of power coal plants provide—that there would be even less reason for Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative to build the Rogers City plant, which Wolverine calls its “Clean Energy Venture.”

GLE is one of four electric co-ops in north and west-central Lower Michigan that own Wolverine Power and are obligated to use the electricity it supplies to them.

Mr. Evans, who hails from Atwood, in Antrim County, where he lives on a nearly off-the-grid farm, has some credentials that help back up his opinion. When he isn't evaluating the energy efficiency of homes and businesses via his Ellsworth-based company, Paradigm Energy Services, he teaches energy efficiency courses at Northwestern Michigan College’s M-TEC. He previously studied there for two years before graduating from Michigan State University with a B.S. in Resource Development. 

The Great Lakes Bulletin News Service sat down with Mr. Evans recently to talk about his GLE campaign, which ends in late August when his co-op’s board of director mail-in ballots, contained in the utility’s Country Lines magazine, are due.

Wolverine is currently awaiting a decision from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on its proposed plant. MDEQ is reconsidering its air-quality permit for the 600-megawatt coal-, petroleum coke-, and biomass-burning power plant, which would be built near the Lake Huron shoreline in a large limestone quarry adjacent to Rogers City.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: Tell us about yourself—what is your background in clean energy and living in northern Michigan?

Ric Evans: My wife and I have both been involved in energy efficiency and sustainable living for quite some time—what food choices we make, what we choose to drive, how far from work we live. 

We bought our place in 1999 and built a cordwood addition with passive solar walls, all-recycled windows and doors, radiant floor heating, that kind of stuff. We also put in a real small solar electric system, a solar hot water system, and we're going through the steps with Banks Township to get a wind turbine on our property.

I was also lucky enough to be teaching at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City when they got a half-million dollar grant to develop their tech school, the M-TEC building. Through that relatively large grant, I was one of a handful of people to get sent around the country to check out what other community colleges were doing—anything related to the efficiency, weatherization, renewable energy field. I checked out the Kansas Building Science Institute, an energy-auditing training institute in Manahattan, Kansas. We brought back these building science programs and we've been implementing them at the college.

I started up my business, Paradigm Energy Services, in 2006. I do work with Habitat for Humanity on their new construction, doing Energy Star certifications. I've dabbled in some of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certifications as well, though I'm not an accredited LEED professional. I work primarily on existing structures.      

Why the interest in GLE? What prompted you to run for the Board of Directors?

Mr. Evans: Since me and my wife bought our place in 99', I've been a Great Lakes Energy co-op owner, and I've always wanted them to encourage efficiency more. But, of course, utilities' whole thing is to sell power; that's what they're here to do. To think that they're going to sell less of it on their own is not likely.

If they were to spend all this money that they're spending on coal plant on efficiency, we would eliminate the need for that new base-load way more cost-effectively, and produce more jobs. It's not just that I want to be anti-coal, but I really want to be for efficiency and renewable energy. Efficiency: for me, that's the first step. That, on a massive scale, coupled with much smaller-scale decentralized power.

What sort of credentials would you bring to the Great Lakes Energy board?

Mr. Evans: Especially in northern Michigan, I feel that I have a much broader look at the energy efficiency and renewableenergy fields compared to about anybody. (Laughs.)

I think that's one of the things really missing on the co-op board—a different look at energy and how increasing our baseload can be completely replaced through energy optimization programs and energy efficiency and renewables. I've seen this firsthand in my work. I have over three hundred energy audits under my belt now, both commercial and residential.

As an educator, I think that I could help the membership have a better understanding of their personal responsibility with their own personal energy habits.  Getting people to engage about anything can be pretty tricky if they're not passionate about it. But I think members would be more engaged if they realized what went into having our power on.

It doesn't sound like you approve of the Rogers City coal plant. What are your main objections?

Mr. Evans: We're coming into an age now where that cheap energy is starting to catch up with us, in the cost of energy. One of the major reasons Rogers City was shut down (by state regulators) in the first place was the cost. It was going to double our current energy costs; for the average household, about a 75 dollar a month increase in their energy bill.

I'd be a little bit more supportive of this plant if it wound up being the absolute state of the art, newest, latest greatest everything, if they were pulling out every stop that they had to prove that this was the cleanest. But they're not; it's far from it.

Also, the last dozen or so coal plants that have been built around the country, they're typically built in low-income, high unemployment areas, and they really pound and hammer on the “bringing in new jobs.” That is certainly true to a certain degree, but the majority of those workers are brought into the area. Joe the plumber isn't being brought in off the street and off unemployment to build this coal plant; it's very specialized work. Also, I've read that only 25 to 50 percent of the jobs promised from these plants actually wind up being long-term jobs on site.   

One of my thoughts, also, is that we're basically subsidizing our energy costs with our healthcare industry. Asthma rates in kids and cancer rates are going off the charts; hundreds of thousands of people are dying prematurely around the country, all because of airborne things directly linked to coal.

How is GLE's communication with its membership? Have they been open about the Rogers City coal plant project?

Mr. Evans: I don't feel that they've been as forthright as they probably could have been. It's been hard to pin them down on a specific number as far as an actual long-term cost. The numbers vary widely. It raises flags if there isn't open communication: Is something trying to be hidden? Or is something being put through a little faster than it maybe should be, because they know that they have a relatively complacent membership? There's only 2 percent voter participation for the board of directors.

Several reports claim that a new Rogers City plant would drastically increase GLE members' utility bills. Have you seen anything from GLE or Wolverine that leads you to believe otherwise?

Mr. Evans: I have not, actually. But this is where the whole power thing gets kind of muddy. Because subsidies are so thick in the energy world, it's hard to know how some of these costs might be able to be buried in other things. That's the only way that I can see for them to come up with a way it to be cheaper. But when you do the simple math of how much something costs to build and maintain, it's pretty simple—this plant would double our energy bills.    

What sorts of projects would you like to see GLE and Wolverine invest in instead of new coal power?

Mr. Evans: I think the board is already well seated with people who are looking to produce more fossil-fuel power, so what I'm trying to bring to the table is a look at efficiency on a massive scale—the same kind of vigor they're putting into this coal plant. If I had access to twenty-two million, that could have some serious impact in energy optimization.

Country Linesand GLE have gotten better over the past couple years talking about renewable energy and energy efficiency, but it's still very much downplayed and still done on a home-to-home scale, rather than, “Here's something that collectively we're going to take on.”

We need healthy dialogue with people that have been in the industry for a long time, that know what we have done and what works right now. But there also needs to be new light shed on existing and emerging technologies.   

When we're comparing new power to new power, everybody says wind, solar, efficiency and all that stuff, it's really expensive. It is expensive, but compared to what? If we're comparing it to a sixty-year-old coal plant, well yeah, it is expensive. But if you compare it to a brand new coal plant, it's actually right on par.

Andrew Willens is a senior at Oberlin College. He’s majoring in musical studies but has a strong interest in clean energy issues. The Petoskey native is back home for the summer, reporting on coal and renewables for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at awillens@oberlin.edu. Click here to see a county-by-county map of GLE Co-op’s service area. Ric Evans can be reached at paradigmric@gmail.com.

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