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Holland Council Weighs Pioneering Energy Strategy

But, probing beyond report’s scope, members offer few opinions

January 12, 2012 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


HOLLAND—The Holland City Council has begun considering an innovative development strategy that would make this town a national leader in energy efficiency and clean energy use.

But, during their initial discussion last month, it was difficult to tell whether council members actually like the proposed strategy.

During their Dec. 14 special study session, council members had little to say about the broad, long-range goals that the document, entitled Holland Community Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy: Creating a Global Competitive Community, lays out. Members mostly concentrated on personnel questions, public engagement, the city utility’s abilities, fuel sources, and financing—details that the 151-pagedocument was not intended to address.

Instead, HCEECS sets ambitious energy-saving and -production goals, outlines broad paths to them, and offers rough cost comparisons. It calls for retrofitting Holland’s private and public buildings to cut their energy use by at least 50 percent; using power plant waste heat to assist manufacturers, melt snow on downtown sidewalks, and warm homes, businesses, and schools; and moving away from new, coal-powered generation to cleaner, cheaper natural gas and wind power, as well as biomass and solar panels.

The proposed 40-year strategy was released in September and formally endorsed and presented to the council in early November by city staff, an appointed citizens committee, and the international consultant who wrote it. Proponents say it would greatly increase Holland’s ability to attract innovative companies, grow its economy, and cut residents’ and businesses’ energy costs.

The strategy does recommend launching five specific “pilot” projects—including retrofitting an historic Holland neighborhood—to begin an ambitious, citywide transformation, and is loaded with numbers. But its many charts and graphs largely focus on comparative costs, efficiency gains, and environmental effects of the different “scenarios” that Garforth International, the consulting firm, offered to city staff after tabulating Holland’s overall current and future energy needs.

About a half-hour into the Dec. 14 discussion, newly elected councilman Wayne Klomperens urged his colleagues to evaluate HCEECS’s wider view rather than continue to ask detailed questions about specific items it does not cover.

“Where are we at on a gut level?” Mr. Klomperens asked the rest of the council about the big changes the strategy envisions. “I cannot tell where we really are at because we are talking in circles. We need to say ‘This is where I’m really at on this.’”

Council members discussed the report for more than 90 minutes with members of the Holland Community Sustainability Committee, which managed the HCEECS process, and representatives from the city-owned Holland Board of Public Works, which would likely translate the strategy into reality. But most members offered no initial reactions to the report.

Several members said they were waiting for a highly detailed financial study, currently in progress, that would look closely at a number of specific, long-term cost considerations.

Check Values, Make Plans
The work session was kicked off by Warren Stuk, chair of the sustainability committee, which selected Garforth to perform the study in the wake of community meetings held to determine what values Hollanders bring to planning for future energy use.

Mr. Stuk reminded council members that the work session was meant to focus on two resolutions they tabled weeks earlier in order to study the report. One endorses the HCEECS; the other forms teams to look into the kind of detailed questions that implementation would raise—and that council members asked at the work session.

“What you have is about the fiftieth revision of the plan,” Mr. Stuk said of the strategy. “It’s been challenged, changed, and in some cases, where we lacked some consensus, incorporates projections from two different sets of assumptions. It’s been reviewed and reviewed; we have a lot of confidence in the Garforth work.”

He urged council members to focus on whether the report fulfilled its basic mission—outlining a path to increase Holland’s economic competitiveness, provide reliable and affordable energy, and protect the environment—while reflecting Holland’s values.

“Go back and look,” he said. “In addition to all the technical matters, we firmly believe the report expresses the values of our community, based on what our residents expressed at 19 public community meetings in terms of their values.”

Most council members did not offer opinions on the strategy or the resolutions, however; some indicated that they first want to see a highly detailed “life cycle” financial analysis. That analysis is due in a few weeks from HDR Inc., an international firm that evaluates or manages large construction projects, from hospitals to solar installations to coal plants.

Mr. Stuk agreed that HDR’s analysis is “absolutely necessary,” but added that the “recommendations should be seen as an agreed-upon strategic basis for forming a step by step plan.”

Mr. Stuk said that, if the strategy is adopted, then, in the future, as energy-related decisions are made, leaders and residents would “look at each step, and go back to the strategic plan and say, ‘This is what it says, it reflects our values, is there any reason we can’t do this?’ That is the change in conversation I am talking about.”

Who Can Do This?
But the council’s own conversation quickly turned to wide-ranging questions about fuel sources, European coal-burning, whether or not the proposed strategy adequately addressed water use in energy production, and other specifics HCEECS did not consider.

That prompted Diane Haworth, vice chair of the HBPW Board of Directors, to reinforce Mr. Klomparans’ request to stick to the broader view in their discussion. She reminded her colleagues that city council retained Garforth to evaluate Holland’s energy use because HBPW must soon decided whether or not to push ahead with its proposed, at times hotly contested, coal-fired power plant, which remains the subject of a lawsuit by Sierra Club and National Resource Defense Council.

“Let’s be comprehensive, let’s not be issue-oriented,” she said. “We’ve got 40 years to figure this out; it is the whole idea of defining your end goal. That allows you to consolidate your resources and put them where they are going to do the most good.”

Several council members said they could see HBPW’s resources meeting most of the strategy’s proposals—building and operating a new gas-turbine plant, extending waste heat to nearby neighborhoods and institutions, erecting or purchasing power from new wind or solar sources, and selling steam and other industrial services to manufacturers.

But they also were concerned about a large piece of HCEECS—efficiency retrofits for Holland’s 7,400 single-family homes.

Several members said that it would take a broad, coordinated effort among elected officials, volunteers, and experts to get the widespread community support universal retrofitting would require.

Holland Mayor Kurt Dykstra said he saw a different, perhaps quicker route to launching such a major efficiency effort.

“I suspect many of us have had meetings with large, reputable companies in the efficiency world,” he said. “They have great interest in finding ways to be part of this discussion. So it may not be just an HBPW-volunteers-type system. We could have some pretty good partnerships with companies in the private sector.”

The mayor also said he sees little in HBPW’s charter language that would prevent the municipal utility from providing any of the new services that the strategy calls for. The municipal utility provides electricity, water, wastewater, and broadband services to city residents and businesses.

“At least in past conversations,” Mayor Dykstra observed, “I’ve never heard them say, ‘We can do these four things and, other than that, please leave us alone.’”

HBPW board chair Timothy Hemmingway waxed enthusiastic about providing the new services the strategy envisions.

“What we would provide is above and beyond what you get elsewhere in the United States and the world,” he said. “There’s an opportunity right there for us. It’s a hell of a strategy and a hell of a direction for us to be going. It would require lots of changes as we go along, but if we adhere to thinking of what kind of stewards we want to be, we will be successful.”

The mayor then urged council to be careful about how it views HCEECS.

“On the one hand, we don’t want to look at this and say, ‘This is the Bible and we cannot deviate,’” he said. “There are some out there who give the impression that once this is approved, we’ve made decisions and have to live with them forever. Others want to say nice words, genuflect, and then do whatever they want.

“We want to give this (strategy) sufficient weight so that it is not blithely entered in to, while at the same time being explicit that this is not the last word.”

Mr. Dykstra added that, with the HDR report due in just a few weeks, there would soon be information to make some immediate and long-term decisions.

Who Pays?
Council members also raised concerns about how best to finance efficiency retrofits for Holland’s thousands of homes—a project costing tens of millions of dollars.

Some efficiency advocates have long argued that utility companies should pay for such upgrades and recover their investment via utility bills, because it allows them to reduce or eliminate the need for building very costly, new power plants.

So far, however, few U.S. utilities outside of California, which has long been aggressive about energy efficiency, have done that. Usually government programs or, recently, commercial enterprises have assembled the necessary capital, made loans to businesses or residents for the retrofits, and allowed efficiency savings to gradually pay the tab.

HBPW’s Haworth said she was very interested in such pay-as-you-save approaches, but said she knows little about how various plans being used elsewhere in the country actually work.

Ann Arbor is using a PACE program—property assessed clean energy—for commercial buildings there,” she said. The program permits businesses to pay back their retrofitting costs via their annual property taxes—and could include residences if several federal agencies that guarantee home loans drop their objections to the approach.

“Let’s find out from them how it is going,” she said.

Meanwhile, contacted after the study session, Councilman Klomperens said he’s still waiting to hear what his colleagues think about the HCEECS, and said he’s not sure when council will take another step.

“We need to be talking about this,” he said. “Dialogue is important, and we need to know what people are thinking, so we can move forward.”

MLUI senior editor Jim Dulzo covers coal and clean energy issues. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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