The Board of Water and Light’s Citizens Advisory Panel on New Generation recommended “wait-and-see” on a proposed billion-dollar coal and biomassfueled power plant in late January, but the utility’s general manager says the facility may still turn out to be in BWL’s future.

Saying the panel’s report “came up with some pretty good conclusions,” General Manager J. Peter Lark added that “the conclusions didn’t say, ‘The hybrid plant is not the way to go.’ They said, ‘Step back, watch your load.’ The 11-member panel, whose report became public on Jan. 26, began work in 2008 after BWL proposed the 350megawatt hybrid plant to replace the Eckert Power Station, portions of which are more than 55 years old and whose staged shutdown is set to begin in 2017. The hybrid plant would be fueled by two-thirds low sulfur coal. Waste wood, paper and crop residue would supply the rest.

When BWL announced its plans to build the hybrid plant in May 2008, Lark called it “the smartest, most economical and most environmentally sensitive option we have.’ He also warned of 52 percent to 55 percent rate increases without the plant and if the board purchased electricity on the open market. Building the plant, he estimated, would hike rates 18 percent to 21 percent.

Environmental critics sharply disagreed, saying the hybrid plant would lock the utility into a 50-year continued reliance on coal and ignored options like weatherization and efficiency programs to reduce demand and small-scale distributed energy resources. The citizens group Lansing Can Do Better rose up to stop the proposal.

The panel said there are too may uncertainties about federal climate change legislation affecting coal generation, the state and local economy and the availability of a steady biomass supply. Lark acknowledged all of these issues, saying “the economy went into the tank” after the hybrid plant was proposed. As the panel’s work went on, he said, “It became really clear that there were some problems with the plan as we had put it forward.”

BWL, Lark added, has learned that a consistent stream of biofuels is going to be difficult to secure. “People were telling us they had such a stream, and now we’re having trouble finding the stream. Every day we hear new things about ‘Oh, I’ve got some bio you can burn,’ but if you’re going to do a major plant, you’ve got to have a substantial stream of biomass, and really, as yet, I don’t think we’ve found that."

Although biomass is considered a renewable energy source, it is not necessarily cleaner than coal. Coal and biomass plants emit similar amounts of soot and, in some cases, greater amounts of nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, which contribute to summertime smog.

Coal’s problems are even bigger. Coal burning also releases naturally occurring mercury and is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide. A recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding that carbon dioxide is a pollutant under terms of the Clean Air Act positions the agency to write rules limiting emissions of the gas in the event Congress hits a stalemate on energy and climate change legislation.

Despite all this, Michigan utilities continue to press ahead with coal plant plans, including an 830-megawatt Consumers Energy facility in Bay City that the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment approved in December over environmental group objections.

While saying she is encouraged by the citizen panel report, Anne Woiwode, executive director of the Sierra Club Michigan chapter, added, “We can’t ignore that the BWL has not yet abandoned the proposed coal plant. We hope the board listens to the panel but also goes beyond that to make sure that investments in meeting our energy needs move the area forward toward a clean, efficient and renewable energy future.”

Added Woiwode: “For a year and a half the residents and ratepayers that are part of Lansing Can Do Better have been raising questions, bringing information and urging the BWL administration, the panel and board to address our electric needs through energy efficiency and renewable energy. This report shows significant progress in that direction."

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, who co-chaired the citizens panel, called the Eckert plant “obsolete” and said the board will have to use a “patchwork” of options to respond to generation issues.

Joan Nelson, a panel member and director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, cited “ a strong consensus” for delaying the decision to invest in a new facility. “I’m pleased about the board’s commitment to aggressively pursuing other options, including energy efficiency strategies and technologies,” she said, adding that these are the quickest, easiest and cheapest approach to reducing energy use and costs.

Lark said the panel’s recommendation for a closer look at a natural gas-fired plan was a good one. “I think a natural gas plant would make a lot of sense at this point. We haven’t decided which way we’re going to go. But we’re going to study those recommendations very seriously.

“What I would see coming out of their recommendations is that we keep the biotype plant in the back of our heads, let’s take a look at gas, and there’s a suggestion that we buy from another utility,” Lark said, but he added that transmission of that power would be “costly.”