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MLUI to TCL&P: More Efficiency, More Renewables

Report ties biomass plan to less energy use, plus solar and wind dollars to schools

March 31, 2010 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  MLUI’s new report says that small amounts of biomass power works if it’s sustainably sourced and tied to aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy investments.

TRAVERSE CITYThe Michigan Land Use Institute is urging Traverse City Light & Power to expand its renewable energy plan by stepping up investments in energy efficiency measures that would save its customers money. MLUI is also asking the utility to promote solar power and more wind power development in a way that benefits local schools, community groups, and entrepreneurs.

MLUI, the Traverse City-based non-profit, says that aggressive efficiency and clean energy development strategies, combined with a small amount of waste wood or biomass-fired generation, would generate as much as $151 million in new economic activity in the region over the next 30 years.

MLUI pitched its ideas in a white paper prepared in league with the Michigan Energy Alternatives Project. The groups presented their findings to TCL&P’s board of directors last night.

Linda Johnson, chair of the TCL&P board, which is encountering resistance from some local environmentalists over the possibility that it might build several biomass-fired power plants to meet its renewable energy goals, thanked MLUI’s Brian Beachamp and MEAP founder Tom Karas for their presentation. Ms. Johnson promised that her board would look closely at the twelve-page report, titled 20-20 by 2020: A Clear Vision for Clean-Energy Prosperity.

The paper calls on the utility to help its customers save money and cut energy use by 20 percent in the next 10 years, a goal the organization says is ambitious but attainable. That goal differs somewhat from the one the city-owned utility adopted last spring—30 percent renewables by 2020, with biomass likely providing some of the continuous “base load” power that wind and sunshine currently cannot provide.

20-20 by 2020 also proposes allowing schools, community groups, and entrepreneurs to make their own, profitable investments in large-scale solar arrays and wind turbines as part of a drive to generate 20 percent of TCL&P’s energy from renewable sources, including landfill gas—also by 2020. The company has already committed to wind power and landfill gas, but in smaller proportions than the white paper supports.

The paper says burning a small amount of biomass—specifically, waste wood from nearby logging operations—or contracting for power from natural gas-fired generators could work as part of an overall plan that would make major strides in moving TCL&P away from coal power.

Replacing the Dirtiers Fuel
The Institute praised TCL&P for its interest in reducing its dependence on coal. MLUI noted that coal burning is America’s largest single source of greenhouse gases. The practice also emits toxic mercury, health-damaging nitrous oxides and particulate matter, and forest-damaging sulfur oxides. It also sends billions of Michigan’s energy dollars to other, coal-mining states.

Because of its heavy emphasis on energy efficiency, and its use of “feed-in tariffs” to pay schools, non-profits, and entrepreneurs who install their own solar panels or wind turbines and sell electricity to the company, MLUI’s plan would, by 2020, cut TCL&P’s use of coal by as much as 45 percent—a bigger reduction than the utility has proposed.

Some environmentalists have voiced concern that high demand for waste wood to fuel a TCL&P’s biomass plant—and several similar facilities proposed for other northern Michigan communities—would harm local forests, do little to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions, and emit other health-harming pollution. But a number of forestry experts, energy regulators, and environmental advocates contacted by MLUI while assembling 20-20 by 2020 said all of those challenges, while real, can be overcome.

Unlike TCL&P’s current plant, 20-20 by 2020 treats biomass not as “renewable,” but as “base load” or continuous power.

The paper does not object to TCL&P’s use of a small amount of biomass if it is tied to aggressive efficiency and renewable energy measures. The Institute said the experts it consulted agreed that, when properly scaled, sourced, and operated, a biomass plant has little effect on forests, provides local jobs, burns cleanly, and keeps energy dollars within the region.

MLUI’s report also suggests natural gas-fired power plants as a possible base load energy source.

While not renewable, natural gas is far cleaner than coal in virtually every measure—from toxic mercury emissions to heat-trapping CO2, and according to a growing number of energy industry experts, in terms of future costs.

These experts predict that the price of coal will rise sharply as the national economy recovers, and that the price of natural gas, which has fallen sharply in recent months, will likely remain low if new gas-extraction techniques are proven to be safe and are used to greatly expand the supply of what is the world’s cleanest-burning fossil fuel.

Prompted by complaints from some environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it would look more closely at those new techniques.

Traverse City Light & Power will present a summary of residents’ comments on its renewable energy goals and possible plants at a forum scheduled for Wednesday, April 7, at 7 p.m. At the Hagerty Center, in Traverse City. There’s more information about the meeting here.

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

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