March 5 2009 12:00 AM

As BWL’s coal plan goes back to the kitchen, citizens’ panel cracks open the door.


Half a cup of scrutiny and a teaspoon of resistance spiced a lively meeting of the Board of Water and Light’s citizen advisory panel meeting Thursday.

The panel’s job is to evaluate BWL’s proposal for a new, primarily coalfired power plant to replace the aging Eckert station.

The panel spent most of its three meetings in fall 2008 listening patiently while BWL argued for the plant and concerned citizens and environmentalists gave them an earful, mostly against it.

The mood was different Thursday at the Foster Community Center, as BWL official George Stojic stood before the nine-member panel and about 30 members of the public and asked for three months to revise the utility’s energy plan.

“We’re going to try to determine whether or not it makes sense to modify the IRP (Integrated Resource Plan), whether we’re going to have to rerun it or exactly what we’re going to have to do,” Stojic said.

The panel stirred to life.

“Is there a place for us in this process?” co-chairman Paul Hufnagel asked. Hufnagel, president of the Lansing Labor Council, chaired the meeting because panel chairman Frank Kelly, the former state attorney general, was on vaction.

“How did you come up with three months?” asked panel member James Butler, the urban revitalization director at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. “Is there anything magical about three months?”

Explaining the need for a time out, Stojic cited energy demand uncertainties, the recent economic downturn, impending federal greenhouse gas legislation, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s recent push to ramp up renewable energy and limit new coal plants in the state.

Several panelists and citizens at the meeting praised the utility’s decision to rethink its plan, but they worried that BWL would cook up its revisions in private.

“I would think we might be able to give some input into developing a new plan, rather than waiting three months and have them bring a plan to us,” panelist David O’Leary, former BWL commissioner and owner of O’Leary Paint, said.

The complaint was familiar. Last fall, the utility took heat from the public for unveiling its IRP, complete with a new $1 billion coal-fired plant, and only later asking for public input.

But when the panel pressed Stojic for inclusion in the revision process Thursday, his response fell into the same pattern.

“I think it would be helpful to meet again, after we get half a chance to look at this and decide which way we want to go with it,” Stojic said.

Panel member Randy Thayer, manager of General Motors’ Delta Assembly Plant, wasn’t satisfied.

“I’d like to hear more about where the direction is going before we wait three months for a new plan, or even have a meeting,” Thayer said.

Finally, Stojic agreed to put together a “schedule for reevaluation” and submit it to the panel members, who could offer “suggestions” individually or together.

Hufnagel said the panel, in its turn, would continue to welcome input from the public. During a public comment period, 11 people spoke against the new plant and one spoke in favor.

But the panel was hardly less critical than speakers from the public. Midway through the meeting, O’Leary offered the most pointed critique to come from the panel yet.

“I think back at business decisions I made,” O’Leary said. “Maybe I saw 12 signs that said ‘Stop, stop, stop’ and I still did it. Right now we’re at that point.”

Private companies make contingency plans, O’Leary said, and BWL could do the same. “We might ask what would be our reaction if we lost our two top customers,” he said of his own company. “What if you came back to us with a plan excluding building the coal [plant]? Exclude that completely and see what you can come up with.”

After the applause in the room died down, Stojic told O’Leary that BWL’s modeling, done 18 months ago, already included such a scenario.

“But the model has changed here,” O’Leary said. “We don’t know what is going to happen with GM, with electric cars, with legislation. If we’re going to put all our emphasis on building a new plant, we could have a white elephant in four years.”

Finally, O’Leary invoked his 10 years’ service on BWL’s board of directors.

“I’m proud of the Board of Water and Light,” O’Leary said. “I think it’s the best run utility in the state. We’ve got a great advantage in the community here, and I don’t want to lose this.”

“I don’t necessarily disagree with you,” Stojic said.