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Holland Set to Choose from Bold Efficiency 'Scenarios'

Old World method would trim coal power, cut energy costs, aid prosperity

September 13, 2011 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Three Garforth efficiency scenarios would sharply cut coal use for Holland’s future electricity generation. Click to enlarge

HOLLAND, Mich.—Mayor Kurt Dykstra readily admits that his penny-pinching ways can sometimes seem extreme. For example, he rarely used air conditioning this summer, despite the prolonged, intense heat.

But, he points out, he’s got plenty of company in this deeply Dutch town when it comes to trying hard to save money.

“We are a pretty conservative area,” Mayor Dykstra said of his community of 33,000 near the Lake Michigan shoreline. “We Dutch are pretty tight—or even cheap.”

And some people think that could lead to a very good thing.

Thanks to what Mayor Dykstra calls his city’s “ethos,” Holland officials and an international energy efficiency consultant will tomorrow roll out their final report on a proposed Community Energy Plan (CEP) that they believe could lead their community to a considerably more prosperous future. The report will be posted on the city’s Web site.

Like many cities, Holland is already trying to save tax dollars by slashing its municipal energy use. Unlike other Michigan cities, however, the plan officials here are eyeing would go far beyond weather-stripping and CFL light bulbs.

The Holland Community Sustainability Committee, a citizens group appointed two years ago by the city and the Holland Board of Public Works, has been considering four possible CEP “scenarios,” released by Garforth International in May, that would go all-in with Holland’s core value of thrift. 

On Monday, Sept. 19, at 6 p.m., Peter Garforth, the firm’s founder, and city officials will explain their preferred scenario at a meeting of the sustainability committee at City Hall Council Chambers. The committee will conduct a town hall-style meeting the next evening, Sept. 20, at 6:30 p.m., at the council chambers, to hear what residents have to say about the choice.

Any of the scenarios would, over 40 years, make Holland’s 7,500 single-family homes at least 50 percent more energy efficient while steadily whittling away at local manufacturers’ energy use, too. That would sharply cut energy costs for residents and businesses; bring long-term, steady employment to local construction contractors; and reduce the need for HBPW, the city’s publicly owned utility, to invest in new power generation.

Proponents say that such a spectacularly efficient energy system would attract new, high quality businesses eager to find shelter from volatile, steadily rising energy costs. Mayor Dykstra, for one, believes that the city’s famous “snowmelt” district, which uses HBPW waste heat to keep the downtown business district’s sidewalks snow- and snow-shovel-free, hints at what could be a part of Holland’s possible, new energy future.

“That’s been wildly successful,” he said of the boost to local businesses the snowmelt system provides. “So now we already have this mindset. The idea is to take that concept and make it much larger.”

The CEP scenarios Garforth and Holland officials are choosing from would drastically improve building insulation and appliance efficiency and, crucially, mimic the now common European practice of district heating—sharing industrial and utility waste heat not just with sidewalks but with municipal buildings, private homes, businesses, factories, and schools, as well.

This big jump in energy saving would also cut HPBW’s future use of coal power—currently the utility’s chief fuel for electricity. That would mark a significant change for a community where its public utility’s proposed 78-MW coal plant expansion has triggered deep passions and expensive lawsuits.

The different scenarios would cut Holland’s future coal use by different amounts—up to 90 percent—in a state that, according to the federal Energy Information Agency, annually exports $1.4 billion to out-of-state coal companies, pays almost twice as much for the delivered price of coal as it did in 2005, and saw those prices rise by 43 percent over the past year—the sharpest rise in the nation.

But the question remains: Will enough Hollanders learn enough about the CEP, understand the personal and business advantages it would likely generate, and push the city to adopt a sufficiently strong plan? After all, according to the mayor, the snowmelt district project won city council approval in the late 1980s by just one vote.

Looking for a Breakthrough
Mr. Garforth, who is working with local officials and the sustainability committee on the CEP, says his team is thinking far harder about the fruits of efficiency than about Holland’s long-running coal-plant expansion debate.

“Holland has embraced a world-class, breakthrough efficiency plan, and I’m very proud of them,” he said. “It’s not easy for a town like that to do such a thing.”

In fact, though, some of those working with him now say that a “breakthrough” approach may be far more practical and possible than they once thought.

For example, HCSC Chair Warren Stuk, a retired president of the American arm of Big Dutchman Inc., an international manufacturer of automated livestock-production equipment, said that while he’d long been aware of the advantages efficiency gives to business, the Garforth findings completely surprised him.

“That our greenhouse gasses per capita [a standard measure of energy efficiency] in this beautiful Dutch city is certainly no better than the U.S. average is startling,” he said. “Never did I realize that our own power plant was using only 30 percent of its heat to make electricity.”

“Facts like that,” he added, “from this study, for me and members of the committee, have been really eye-opening. My view of energy efficiency, not just electricity, has expanded just tremendously.”

Meanwhile, the sustainability committee is waiting for the Garforth team and city staff to pick one of the four scenarios.

The scenarios differ solely on how HBPW would generate the additional electricity and district heating it will need by 2050, when the town could have 41,000 people and at least twice as many workers as it does now. Each uses a different combination of coal, natural gas, landfill and biomass gas, and, in one plan, solar and wind, as well, to make electricity and heat.

Mr. Garforth believes that any of the scenarios would give the town a huge leg up in future economic development, while cutting its per capita climate-changing greenhouse gasses by 60 percent, thus living up to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement it signed several years ago.

The Power of Integration
Mr. Garforth discovered the power of an integrated approach to energy efficiency while working in Brussels for Honeywell Europe in the 1980s, helping Central and Eastern European cities and businesses cut energy costs.

“It fascinated me that if you look at the city or community as a single system, not a collection of buildings, you get a very different perspective on energy efficiency,” he said.

When the Englishman moved to Toledo, where he said he helped Owens Corning increase its energy productivity substantially in five years, he realized he had discovered a powerful business model.

Today his Toledo-based company works with communities, colleges, and industrial companies in the U.S., Canada, and China that are willing to adopt breakthrough, not incremental, efficiency strategies.

Mr. Garforth said projects he’s done in Arlington, Va. and Ohio’s Lakeland Community College are among his favorite success stories. 

“Lakeland is a great example of a planning process, now into implementation, that’s delivering better results than anticipated,” he said. “They thought our plan was beyond challenging, but they are doing better than that. It is now a national award winner.”

After Holland hired him, he scoured its energy and building database, “one of the best” he’s seen in North America, to guide his scenario designs. And he’s confident that what he calls “standard practice” in Europe, Korea, and China can work business-recruitment wonders in Holland.

“If I can offer, as in the example of Aalborg, in Denmark, to buy your company’s waste heat to warm two-thirds of the city,” he said, “I’m not cutting your taxes, but I am buying your wasted heat to warm a third of the city. I don’t have to bribe you with taxes. That is the power of integration.”

Mr. Garforth shrugged off suggestions that he should place more emphasis on renewable energy, or that he should be more concerned about eliminating coal power—the energy source that, per kilowatt, emits the largest amounts of health- and climate-harming gasses.

“It’s not a battle with one side bad and the other good,” he insisted, noting that, because of heat recovery and efficiency, Germany’s per-capita greenhouse emissions are well under half of America’s, even though they burn a similar proportion of coal to make electricity.

But, when pressed, he says the solar power included in one scenario would become a “game changer” if, as seems likely, its price continue to plummet.

“Then you need to design a whole new system, like we are doing in Holland,” Mr. Garforth explained.

That’s what Garforth “Scenario B” does: It uses very little coal, and, instead, substantial amounts of natural gas, biomass, wind, and solar power. Solar, he said, would be particularly cost-effective on hot days, when it could meet the extra, peak power demands of heavy air conditioning.

“It’s the perfect summer ‘peaker’ in northern latitudes,” he said—instead of depending on either of two very expensive alternatives: “spot” power purchases from other power companies, or building natural gas-powered peaker plants that rev up only a few days a year.

With or without renewables, coal, biomass, or natural or landfill gas, however, Mr. Garforth maintains that by far the best way to cut down on energy costs and greenhouse gasses is with breakthrough efficiency.

“It’s better to put tight new windows in Cleveland’s buildings,” he said, “than to put wind turbines in Lake Erie to feed its inefficient buildings. But once you have those efficient buildings and heating districts, then renewables make all kinds of sense.”

Spreading the Word
Committee chairman Stuk said the HCSC expects to receive the Garforth-city staff team’s recommendation with a rough cost estimate attached, a list of the factors that team considered, and verifying data.

“We won’t be going back and challenging that,” he said, unless the selected scenario “did not meet the criteria and was totally out of the realm of the other plans.”

After publicly unveiling the selection next Monday, Mr. Stuk’s committee will take community input at a town hall meeting the following evening, and likely recommend adoption of the selected scenario to the city council and HPBW. The city will hold its own public meeting and either adopt or reject the plan, he said.

If it wins official approval, he observed, there will still be plenty of educational work to do. The HCSC hosted 19 meetings earlier this year with civic, business, and religious groups to explain the CEP process, but reached only 330 Hollanders.

Peter Boogart, a Hollander who inspects weatherization projects for Ottawa County’s Community Action Agency, said he’s followed the sustainability committee’s work for two years.

He’s part of a grassroots group, the Community Energy Advisory Group, which is “concerned that there has not been a healthy communitywide discussion in a calm rational manner that sorts through all the information and allows all points of view.”

“I don’t think the community is going to face a more significant discussion in the next 75 years,” he declared.

Mr. Boogart said the sustainability committee and HBPW must come up with a strong communications strategy for sparking a thorough, very well informed discussion. But he said he’s optimistic.

“The potential for growth and quality of life in Holland is explosive,” he said. “But it is contingent on getting the energy question right. This isn’t rocket science. We’re not inventing the wheel. It is being done in other places in the world. We just need to copy it. It is more a question of will.”

Mayor Dykstra also sounded optimistic.

“I anticipate a lot of forums and community meetings,” he said. “My hope it is that there will be a lot of coffee shop talk, too. All three scenarios move the needle on greenhouse gasses substantially, and we are having a discussion we would not have had three years ago, and it is a more realistic discussion. That’s a very healthy development.”

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

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