Sierra Club to BWL: Retire Eckert by 2017

By Andy Balaskovitz
The Board of Water and Light\'s Eckert plant along the Grand River, south of downtown Lansing. Courtesy photo.

Environmental group urges Lansing Board of Water and Light to invest in long-term renewable energy, not short-term “Band-Aid” fixes to aging coal plant

This story was updated on Monday, April 14.

Monday, April 14 — The Sierra Club over the weekend formally urged the Lansing Board of Water and Light to not spend millions on short-term pollution controls at its aging coal-fired Eckert plant, but rather on sustainable energy and upgrading transmission lines.

The environmental advocacy group, which is leading a statewide Beyond Coal energy campaign, wants Eckert fully offline by 2017. The BWL says it will need to make the pollution-control fixes in order to comply with federal electric reliability standards.

Three of the six units at Eckert shut down in June when the BWL opened its natural-gas powered cogeneration plant in REO Town. Sierra Club wants to see the other three — which range in age from 44 to 50 years old — retired by 2017 in the run-up to pollution control standards planned to be announced for existing coal plants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June.

Brad van Guilder, of the Sierra Club, said the BWL had studies completed late last year that contemplated keeping the three remaining Eckert units open for a few more years beyond 2017 to meet EPA standards on mercury and other air toxic standards. He said the utility is also planning updates in its transmission lines to move existing energy capacity more efficiently.

“Instead of making investments in pollution controls to keep these running, why not expedite the process to finish the transmission lines and be done with the power plant?” van Guilder said today. “Because that’s what they need to do anyway. … They’re wasting their time — and wasting customers’ and taxpayers’ money — by doing this Band-Aid approach.”

The Sierra Club obtained copies of the studies through a Freedom of Information Act request, van Guilder said. In addition to expediting transmission lines, the Sierra Club says the utility should also focus on getting energy from renewable sources like wind and solar and on energy conservation.

The BWL responded Monday by saying it has closed five of 10 coal-fired boilers at the Moores Park/Eckert facility “and soon will be closing another two.”

BWL spokesman Steve Serkaian said in a statement that the three remaining boilers at Eckert are “essential for maintaining electric reliability to downtown Lansing during the peak summer months.”

“The BWL is currently working to replace the three remaining units, but cannot retire the units without violating mandatory federal electric reliability standards and exposing downtown Lansing and surrounding neighborhoods to load shedding during hot summer days until a replacement for the units is available,” Serkaian said in an email.

However, the Sierra Club is urging the utility to move faster, saying in an email Sunday that the BWL “has known for years that the Eckert power plant would need to close. Staff has developed a cost effective alternative to provide reliable power, but has delayed its implementation.”

The group added that Eckert “is by far the largest polluter in the tri-county area and impacts people’s health. The zip codes with the highest asthma rates in Ingham County all surround the Eckert power plant. We should not have to sacrifice our health for the continued operation of this outdated power plant.”

By opening the REO Town plant, BWL has reported that it cut its coal consumption in half, by 350,000 tons a year. The BWL also announced in the summer that it will start buying energy generated from wind turbines in Gratiot County.

Serkaian told City Pulse in October: “No one disagrees that we need cleaner air and cleaner facilities. The question is how to get there with existing plants. You can’t just figuratively flip a switch and convert from coal to natural gas or from coal to alternative energy or from coal to a cleaner burning process, without either completely turning off those plants or spending billions of dollars.”

The Sierra Club and Clean Water Action is hosting a public forum on Eckert Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 3815 S. Cedar St. in Lansing.