Despite a strong show of opposition, leaders of the Lansing Board of Water & Light show no signs of backing off its planned $500 million natural gas-fired plant, announced in December.
About 80 people packed into the old Grand Trunk railroad station in REO Town Thursday evening.
BWL Commission Chairman David Price said it was the most people he’d seen at a board meeting since the “torches and pitchforks” that followed a severe ice storm and widespread power outages in December 2013.
A snaking line of 30 people spoke against the plant at the biannual joint meeting of the Lansing City Council and the BWL Board of Commissioners.
Some fought the roar of passing trains as they implored the board not to commit the city to another large fossil fuel-burning plant, but BWL officials gave the impression that the train has already left the station.
“I say this is the right plan, and so does our board,” BWL Commissioner Dennis Louney said. “We’re 100 percent behind it.”
BWL General Manager Dick Peffley said construction is already set to start in January.
“The site has been selected. Construction is ready to start,” Peffley said. “We’ve been two years working on this and we can’t wait much longer because we need to replace the energy lost by Eckert,” he said, referring to the Eckert Power Station, set to close in 2020.
None of the commissioners expressed interest in a proposal, raised by several speakers, that the board submit its plan to a third party for evaluation. Opponents of the plant say the utility’s nearly 2-year-old analysis is already out of date in view of rapid advances in renewable energy and storage technology.
“If we had to start over, have a third party look at this and stopping everything, that’s another three years we’d have to wait,” Louney said.
In that event, Peffley said, the BWL would have to buy energy from the grid, mainly from Indiana and Ohio and Illinois, instead of selling energy to the grid, as it does now.
Commissioner Sandra Zerkle said it was enough that third parties were involved in developing the plan.
“We had community leaders come in and talk about what are the options for us,” Zerkle said. “We had the strategic plan that the staff in this building gave to us. Plus, we had the customer survey. So we started out with a third party process.”
But Mary Brady-Enerson, cochairwoman of the citizens’ advisory council that worked with the BWL to develop its Integrated Resource Plan, said she had “concerns” about a series of 2016 meetings where the BWL gave the council information on power generation technologies. Brady-Enerson is the Michigan director of Clean Water Action.
“Throughout these presentations, it became very clear to me that the BWL fully intended to build a new natural gas plant and presented information to support the conclusion that they had already reached,” Brady-Enerson said.
BWL execs responded at Thursday’s meeting that the utility needs a “bridge” power plant that will take the utility to the era of 100 percent renewable energy — probably the last it will ever build, Price said.
The BWL plans to reach 40 percent renewable energy by 2040, but won’t be able to meet federal requirements for energy capacity without the plant, Peffley said.
“In about 10 years, about half of our power will come from other sources, but we’re still going to need to fill in the cracks,” Peffley said.
Opponents who spoke Thursday ranged widely in age and cited a wide variety of concerns, including the greenhouse gases emitted by natural gas plants, the volatility of natural gas prices, and the preference of young professionals to settle in communities that commit to using renewable energy.
Several speakers cited a June 12, 2017, City Council resolution committing Lansing to “promote the long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
“This is real, Lansing,” resident Carol Rall said. “This is our moment in history to make a choice that will have effects for many years to come.”
Lynn Stout, a public health consultant and vice chairwoman of the Ingham County Board of Health, was one of several speakers who urged the board to step up energy efficiency programs.
“I don’t want to pay higher rates on a facility that will be obsolete a few years after it’s built,” Stout said. “Be brave and rethink your plan. We still have time.”
“We are definitely on board for upping energy efficiency,” Peffley responded. “If we went to 2 or 3 percent, that would be great.”
But Peffley added that even if efficiency programs resulted in an unheard-of 10 percent reduction in usage, the utility would still face a shortfall of “hundreds of megawatts.”
Claude Beavers, a Lansing resident since 1969, told the board he formerly lived in Williston, North Dakota, the epicenter of the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to obtain natural gas.
“Walt Disney could not have created a more idyllic place,” Beavers said. “Today it’s a disaster because of all the fracking that’s been going on. Why are we rushing? There’s new data coming in all the time.”
Lansing resident Will Lawrence called for a third-party study of the BWL’s plan “at bare minimum.”
“We are in good company of people the world over who are fighting for a healthy future for us and for our children, and we’re going to win,” Lawrence said. “This thing cannot be built over energetic and sustained public opposition.”
“It doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” Peffley said.
“We’re on the same side. Timing is the problem. We need to have this plant, on line, generating power before Eckert closes.”
Councilwoman Carol Wood praised a “very educated public” for speaking at the meeting and said Council would “take up these concerns” in future meetings.
Due to a reporting error, the former job title attributed to Tom Stanton in a story in last week’s City Pulse about the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s proposed natural gas plant was incorrect. Stanton was a staff member of the Michigan Public Service Commission.