Feb. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Opponents of coal plant lay out their case.


Better to light a candle — or fire up the Power Point — than curse the coal.

That was James Clift’s tack Friday night in a presentation to the Westside Neighborhood Association.

“This is what we call Plan B,” Clift said as he laid out possible alternatives to the proposed $1 billion, primarily coal-fired power plant proposed last summer by the Board of Water and Light.

Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, spoke Friday on behalf of Lansing Can Do Better, a grass-roots group opposed to the plant.

First, the group is urging Lansing’s BWL to put off the decision on whether to build the plant for another 24 months.

“We all know the world has been changing quickly,” Clift said. “What the Board of Water and Light thought was best a year ago might be different today.”

Clift cited three main areas of uncertainty, beginning with the clouds of doom hanging over BWL’s biggest customer, General Motors, which uses about 12 percent of the utility’s juice.

To show how suddenly the game can change, Clift seized upon a passage from BWL’s 2006 resource plan (and retained in its 2008 revision): “further decline in GM sales is not anticipated.”

A second, and much bigger, question facing BWL is the possible impact of impending federal greenhouse gas legislation. BWL itself has warned that a carbon tax or similar measure might jack the cost of the proposed plant by as much as $1 billion.

Finally, Clift cited the recent economic nosedive and credit crunch, which hit after BWL drew up its resource plan.

“The financial markets are in a shambles,” Clift said. “Utilities’ access to credits in the next two years is extremely uncertain.”

Tremaine Phillips, another member of Lansing Can Do Better, and an energy expert with the Michigan Environmental Council, flashed a slide equating the proposed BWL plant point-for-point with a coal-fired plant proposed in Wisconsin, nixed in December 2008 by that state’s public service commission.

The Wisconsin plant was last month’s buzz, but utilities across the country are dropping new plants almost faster than coal foes can track them.

On the Monday following Clift’s presentation, Feb. 2, Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative dropped plans for a 250-megawatt coalfired plant near Great Falls, citing “regulatory uncertainties” and dry credit.

The utility is opting for natural gas and wind turbines instead.

When Clift turned to Plan B proper, his chart looked like a half-eaten casserole of lasagna, with layers of energy sources filling up the empty pan of local demand.

The bottom two layers were filled by the BWL’s Erickson Plant and energy purchased from Detroit Edison’s Belle River Plant. Above that was a thin film of mozzarella: BWL’s current haul from renewables, such as methane from landfills and hydroelectric power.

On top was the most generous layer by far, representing the power generated by the aging Eckert station.

That layer will disappear completely in 2017, when the plant is expected to go off line.

Then Clift proceeded to fill the lasagna back in.

First, he pointed out that about 14 percent of BWL’s energy capacity is a reserve margin, required by federal law.

To fill the reserve requirement, Clift proposed BWL build relatively cheap natural gas turbines. (The Montana plant adopted a similar strategy Monday.) The turbines could also be used to back up fickle renewables such as wind and sun. To fill part of the remaining gap, Clift called for an all-out energy efficiency and conservation effort. Weatherizing every building in the service area, for example, would chop the peaks off demand-high summer days. Energy audits routinely find 30 percent waste.

Ratepayers would be charged for the work, but Clift said the service would still cost less than a new plant.

The trick is to decouple profits from output, a delicate operation that has been successfully managed in several states.

“Let’s turn [BWL] into an energy service company — not just electricity when you want it,” Clift said. The BWL is expected to roll out an energy efficiency program early this year, but its extent and structure is unknown.

Finally, Clift piled on another layer of lasagna, representing stepped-up efforts to secure energy from renewable sources.

To make the layers of imaginary lasagna smell real, Clift again talked about “unknowns” that may change the energy landscape dramatically before Eckert goes off line in 2017.

For example, Alternatives First Solar, a Phoenix firm that originated in Toledo, announced last year it is nearing its goal of providing solar energy at a retail of 8 to 11 cents a kilowatt hour.

“That’s close to the cost of energy from a new coal plant,” Clift said.

The prospect of technological breakthroughs, such as electron-sipping LED lighting, may also push efficiency hauls higher than current projections.

“And we’re going to see wind farms like we’ve never seen in Michigan,” Clift said.

Detroit Edison has leased thousands of acres in Michigan’s Thumb, with prospects for much more wind off the shore of Lake Michigan.

With an upgrade in the power grid promised by President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, such energy might become available and competitively priced in the next decade.

If not, Clift suggested a Plan C, although he didn’t call it that.

The three newer turbines at Eckert could remain on line until 2024, Clift suggested, allowing extra time for renewables and efficiency to grow.

It’s uncertain how Plan B, a midnight-oil job by overworked and under funded environmentalists like Clift and Phillips, will stack up against the BWL resource plan, a sophisticated computer model crafted by Ventyx, Inc., a global software and technology giant.

One technical expert among the 30-odd Westside Lansing residents in the hall was enthusiastic. Tom Stanton is renewable energy coordinator for the Michigan Public Service Commission, but he spoke Friday as a citizen.

Stanton compared this moment in Lansing’s history to another fight 20 years ago, when residents banded together to stop BWL from buying into the Consumers’ Energy nuclear plant.

“The citizens did exactly what this group is doing now,” Stanton said. “The board ended up buying into Belle River. We’ve enjoyed good service from that decision for 20 years.”

“I’ve studied these issues all my life, and I’m supporting this group,” Stanton said.