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Consultant, Holland Staff Pick a Bold Energy Strategy

Citizens committee meets Monday as leaders, residents eye big report

September 29, 2011 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jim Dulzo/MLUI
  Warren Stuk, chair of the Holland Community Sustainability Committee, thanks consultant Peter Garforth after a town hall meeting introducing a Community Energy Plan strategy.

HOLLAND, Mich.—Following months of study and public meetings, an international consulting firm and a team of local officials have recommended that Holland adopt the boldest of four scenarios they’ve considered for fashioning an innovative, 40-year Community Energy Plan.

The plan would serve as a powerful economic development strategy and sharply cut residents’ and businesses’ future energy costs.

If the city follows the advice, Holland, long known for its Dutch-inspired thriftiness and acclaimed tulip festival, and more recently as an emerging center for advanced battery production, would become a national leader in another globally crucial technology—energy efficiency.

The report, Holland Community Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy: Creating a Global Competitive Community, first unveiled Sept. 15 on the city’s Web site, embraces both traditional and novel efficiency measures, particularly European-style “district heating.” It would upgrade the efficiency of every building in town and significantly broaden the city’s electricity sources.

The big energy cost reductions, combined with new services provided by the city-owned utility, could boost Holland’s impressive ability to attract high-tech manufacturers, proponents assert.

The 151-page report, known informally as “Scenario B,” urges the city to swap out plans for building a new, coal-fired power plant for a much cleaner, more flexible, less-expensive natural gas plant.

Together the efficiency measures and broader generating choices—natural gas, wind, solar, landfill gas, and biomass—would increase the community’s “energy security” by lessening dependence on any single fuel. The combination would also sharply cut Holland’s climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, even if the town’s population and workforce grow by a projected one-third by 2050.

“What we asked for was a world-class strategy, and that is exactly what we have,” said Warren Stuk, chair of the Holland Community Sustainability Committee (HCSC), which hired Garforth International to work with the city and its public utility to study the town’s energy future. “This is just a fantastic result.”

But Scenario B’s journey is just beginning. The report—authored by Garforth and five Holland officials—first faces an endorsement vote by the city-appointed HCSC, which could occur as soon as 5 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 3. If it’s endorsed, “B” heads to the Holland City Council.

If the council approves “B” and follows lead consultant Peter Garforth’s advice, Holland would spend 14 months transforming the strategy’s broad strokes into precise, step-by-step blueprints and budgets.

Most of those interviewed after a Sept. 19 public presentation and Sept. 20 question and answer session at City Hall seemed either intrigued or pleased by the strategy. One environmental group expressed disappointment that it did not move entirely away from burning fossil fuels, while another handed a petition to Mr. Stuk after the question and answer session that seems to support the strategy’s goals.

But on Monday evening, Mr. Garforth strongly cautioned the audience against treating Scenario B as a precise or final plan.

“Get your city council to assess this not as an implementation plan, but as a strategy with goals,” he advised after explaining “B” to a full house at the council chambers. “Ask the environmentalists in the community not to treat it in a one-dimensional way, looking only at the coal or the fossil fuel use. This is a transformational plan, so everyone is going to have some sort of challenge with it. If you try to wait it out for a perfect solution, the opportunity will simply go away.”

Mr. Garforth also urged the city to quickly take some initial steps, which he called scale projects,  to test the strategy and demonstrate that its holistic, pro-development approach works.

New Business Models
Scenario B would most affect the Holland Board of Public Works, the municipally owned utility that supplies city residents and businesses with electric, water, wastewater, and broadband services. The muni would begin shuttling huge amounts of currently wasted heat and hot water from its own power plant and other industrial operations to nearby businesses, schools, homes, and factories.

This “district heating” approach would eliminate the need for scores of individual, building-by-building furnaces and water heaters—and their fuel or electricity.

HBPW would also distribute power from solar panels, wind turbines, landfill and biomass gas facilities—some of which it might not own—and provide pressurized steam, compressed air, high-temperature heating, and other industrial services to manufacturers that typically generate their own.

In other words, as one city official observed at an earlier meeting, “HBPW would no longer be just an energy provider. It would be an energy services manager.”

Anne Saliers, HBPW’s new conservation programs manager and the muni’s liaison to HCSC, said most of her colleagues view their company’s possibly expanded role with “excitement, not alarm.”

“They offer intriguing possibilities for the community and BPW,” she said of Garforth’s integrated heat sharing and other service proposals. “They definitely are ideas that everyone wants to pursue further, in terms of exploring the next level of possibilities.”

Ms. Saliers wouldn’t speculate on whether the HCSC would endorse or modify Scenario B. She believes, however, that the committee is excited about the strategy and that “the intent is to try to move it along as quickly as possible.”

At-large Holland Councilwoman Nancy De Boer will likely vote on whatever strategy HSCS endorses. She said she views potential change in HBPW’s role as a real opportunity for the utility as it hires a replacement for outgoing general manager Loren Howard.

“That’s great introductory material for people interested in that position,” she said, of Scenario B’s thicket of bullet points, graphs, and plans. “We could say to them, ‘Here’s a list: Where is your expertise?’”

Ms. De Boer, who said she’s “still working to understand what is being recommended,” wants to see cost estimates. She is intrigued by district heating and the possibility of opening up the city’s waterfront by building the suggested gas-fired plant well away from the shoreline—something a new, coal-freighter dependent plant likely wouldn’t allow.

She also wants to know how the city would help finance the strategy’s 7,500 high-efficiency home retrofits, which would cut their energy waste by at least 50 percent using insulation, leak-sealing, and far more efficient furnaces, lighting, and appliances. The project would employ hundreds of workers for decades, but cost each homeowner between $10,000 and $14,000.

One likely solution, according to efficiency proponents, would use some of the retrofit’s monthly energy cost saving to repay low-interest loans.

Thinking Long Term
Holland homeowner Wayne Klomparens, a retired teacher and city council candidate, believes many residents would embrace such retrofits.

“A lot of people already have insulated and gone with high-efficiency appliances and buying new gas furnaces that are rated well,” he observed. “I don’t think we are as behind in our thinking as some would like to make out.”

Mr. Klomparens said he was glad the consultants and city officials picked “B” from the four scenarios they considered: “It makes the most sense because it is the most cost-effective.”

Dean Whittaker lives and works outside of Holland but his economic development consulting firm, Whittaker Associates, uses HBPW power. He said a city-owned utility gives Holland a big competitive advantage—and hopes the community uses it wisely.

He believes that, eventually, solar power will prove to be the best energy source, but that whatever route Holland chooses, new energy will cost more and subsidies are inevitable.

“You can pay for it in your utility bill or through your taxes,” he observed, adding that he’s a “strong advocate for the common good. I believe in the Native American view of ‘seven generations.’ What is going to be in my grandkids’ best interest? I want it to be a long-term solution, and I’m willing to make short-term sacrifices.”

Some Skepticism, Some Support
The plan is attracting differing degrees of skepticism or support from other observers.

In an editorial on Monday, The Holland Sentinel raised questions about switching from coal to natural gas and the expense of home efficiency retrofits, although it didn’t mention possible “pay as you save” financing options.

Jan O’Connell, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter’s Energy Issues Organizer, also has problems with plan “B.” She closely follows sustainability committee meetings and attends most HBPW board meetings to voice her organization’s strong opposition to the proposed coal plant.

The club is suing the state for approving the project last winter.

“The Sierra Club is in support of a Community Plan that phases out the use of coal & fossil fuels over time and replaces it with cleaner, healther, cost-effective sources of Energy,” she explained.  “Holland should be studying paths to a clean energy future and none of the current scenarios would get the City all the way there.”

At last Tuesday’s meeting, Ms. O’Connell congratulated the committee, Garforth, and city staff for their months of work, but urged them to create another scenario that moves away from the reliability of fossil fuels over time. She encourages Holland to consider the ‘sky as the limit’ in selecting both renewable energy and energy efficiency in this 40-year Community Energy Plan.

Marty Kushler, currently a senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, has evaluated, studied, and published research on utility energy efficiency programs—and helped states and federal agencies develop such programs—for 30 years, most recently as supervisor of evaluation at the Michigan Public Service Commission.

He called the city’s consideration of the big picture, the long term, and community goals “definitely laudable.”

“Clearly, I would vote for ‘B’,” he said from his office in Lansing. “In addition to dealing with the threshold issue of the coal plant, it does attempt to be visionary, prioritizes energy efficiency, and does include a lot of other diverse renewables. The district heating plan is innovative.”

But Mr. Kushler wants a more precise plan, particularly energy efficiency programs for businesses and manufacturers—among the scenario’s least-described aspects. He said the commercial sector offers the largest, easiest energy savings.

Meanwhile, Clean Water Action collected 791 signatures from Holland residents—and 221 from the township and nearby Zeeland—urging the city council to “…support a sustainable, long-term energy plan that reduces Holland’s reliance on coal and maximizes renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency…”

Mr. Garforth, for one, maintains that, no matter what HCSC or city council does to the plan, heavy emphasis on efficiency is essential.

“That is non-negotiable,” he said near the close of one meeting. “We can never compromise on that, or it fails. Remember, the cheapest energy is always that energy that you do not use.”

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

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