Traverse City Light and Power Searches for Environmental Solutions

Abstract: Traverse City Light and Power, a municipal owned utility in Traverse City, Michigan, wants to expand its use of renewable energy and reduce its CO2 footprint. The utility set an ambitious goal and proposed a wood gasification plant as an important part of the power generation mix. The proposal raised strong objections within the community and the debate was charged with emotion and contradictory information. The issue reveals just how difficult it will be for America to move ahead into a new power generation system as specific proposals that require the construction of power plants and windmills and vast solar panel arrays move from idea to reality.

I’m proud of my city. And one of the things I’m most proud of is the level of environmental awareness that exists here. People here want to keep it good, and they’re not afraid to butt in when they see the need. Many times I’ve heard of national environmental leaders visiting Traverse City expecting to find a Billy Bob outpost of the North and instead discovering one of the most environmentally sophisticated communities they’d ever encountered. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we have the nationally renowned environmental law firm of Olson, Bzdok & Howard right on Front Street, one of the nation’s most well run land conservancies, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, nearby, and one of the nation’s most innovative and effective smart growth nonprofits, the Michigan Land Use Institute, right upstairs from Talbot’s, downtown.

In recent years, Traverse City’s tiny municipally owned utility, Traverse City Light & Power, gave me reason to feel environmental pride in our Northern Michigan community. In 2004, the utility dismantled an old 30-megawatt coal plant that stood on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay. (Hooray! Less dirty coal!)

And, even more environmentally forward thinking (or at least I thought it was), in 2009 the TCLP commissioners established a goal to produce 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. The goal was among the most ambitious in the nation (California’s state goal is 33 percent by 2020—the highest state goal), and TCLP’s goal far surpassed the target that the Michigan legislature passed, requiring utilities to produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015. When TCLP passed the 30 by 20 goal, as it came to be called, I thought, Way to represent, TCLP! In this environmentally aware town, you are doing right by your people!

But then something strange happened. Choose your metaphor. The wheels fell off the cart. The whole thing blew up. It faced a firestorm of opposition. The upshot: TCLP commissioners recently voted to kill the goal of having 30 percent renewable energy by 2020. And community members were able to get two initiatives on the November ballot that are designed to significantly reduce the municipal utility’s autonomy. One referendum would allow Traverse City voters to approve or deny any power generation plant to be built by the city. The other referendum would place TCLP more directly under the city commission.

Maybe you are thinking the business community did this because they feared higher power rates from a naively ambitious but costly green energy plan. Not so. The people driving the ballot initiatives and the people whose opposition killed the 30 by 20 goal view themselves as environmentalists, and what raised their ire was that TCLP wanted to build, or at least seriously evaluate building, a wood gasification power plant—wood being a renewable energy source.

I wanted to know more. First I called one of the main organizers of the ballot initiatives, former Traverse City mayor Margaret Dodd, and asked her to recall what led her to so staunchly oppose the wood gasification plant and ultimately the30 by 20 goal.

“Did you have some technical understanding of wood gasification, some specific concerns?” I asked.

Dodd prefaced her comments with a story about a bad encounter she had with TCLP back in the 1990’s in which she felt the TCLP commission acted dismissively toward her and the public, and she concedes that influenced her viewpoint headingin—she had a diminished sense of trust. “Initially on biomass, I would say I was attitudinally opposed,” Dodd said.

Explain? “I went to a Light and Power meeting, and all they were talking about at the meeting was biomass and how they could sell it to the public. This was a year before they made the official decision on biomass. At the end of the meeting, they were gathering their papers to leave, and I asked if they were having public comment. And they said okay. I said, ‘Have you explored the possibility of using natural gas as a bridge fuel. It’s cleaner.’ And Linda Johnson, (chair at the time), said, ‘Margaret, public comment is for commenting, not for asking questions.’ I thought, How stupid. How arrogant. All you’ve been talking about is which PR firm to hire to sell biomass, and when I ask if I can ask a legitimate question, of course I can’t. Well, if there was a tipping point about Light and Power and biomass, that was it.”

Dodd was also sharply critical of the 30 by 20 goal in general. “Part of what had them so hell fired on biomass was the fact that they made that big statement at the beginning, produce 30 percent green energy. That’s lovely, but if the technology is not there, it pushes you into biomass because it’s renewable. Everybody was so pleased with themselves, but their bold aim of producing 30 percent renewable is stupid. There’s no way to achieve this. The technology is not there yet.” Later in the conversation, she added, “This group has proven to be inept.”

Harsh words to be sure. And I bring them up not to say Dodd is right or wrong, but as a reminder that in all of us, emotion and fact combine in a smeary blur in our decision-making—which comes first, an intuitive-based passionate viewpoint or a factual assessment?

As for my own bias, I admit to a strong bias against coal, and I felt the biomass idea was something worth studying more. Not saying I was pro-biomass—I didn’t know enough yet to be plainly for or against—but I felt that biomass might be the lesser of the evils we were forced to choose from.

And I was still disappointed about my town backing down from that 30 by 20 goal. I mean, if the whole state of California could try it, why couldn’t we? I called the chair of TCLP, Mike Coco, to find out where that 30 by 20 goal had come from.

The utility held forums in late 2008 about TCLP’s strategic plan, Coco explained. “The feedback we received was don’t continue to invest in fossil fuels. Let’s go more progressive, less polluting,” Coco said. Also, the utility hires Northwestern Michigan College to do customer surveys every other year, and the feedback there was similar: customers wanted more renewable energy and more local generation.

Still, there might have been hints of the coming biomass opposition in the survey results. Whereas 85 percent of respondents said they’d pay more to develop wind and solar, only 44 percent said they’d pay more for biomass. Coco concedes that the forums didn’t draw a ton of people—maybe a dozen at one, maybe 45 at the other.

“Also, when we went into our strategic planning for 2009, the state’s renewable portfolio standard—10 percent renewable energy by 2015—was kicking in. We said we didn’t want to be doing the minimum. We wanted to be leaders, not followers,” Coco said. “We wanted something that was a stretch but that was also achievable.”

But a utility’s strategic plan must balance many issues. In addition to increasing renewables, a big goal was to increase the security of its energy supply by building local generating capacity—which the coal plant had provided. “We currently have almost zero local generation, other than the little windmill up on the hill,” Coco says. So all of our power comes from downstate.

And power from afar is wasteful: 10 percent of the power TCLP buys is lost during that long transmission run, so customers pay nearly $2 million a year for electricity that never reaches their meters. Base load generation was also a key goal in leading Light and Power to seriously explore (or as critics assert, decide on with little public input) the wood gasification plant. For all practical purposes, electricity must be used as it is generated.

This is important when thinking about technologies such as wind and solar. You can’t store a bunch of electricity when it’s windy and sunny and then use it when the wind calms and night arrives. Not economically feasible. So you need what power people call base load capacity—a power plant that you know will make electricity when you want it to. Coal plants. Nuke plants. Wood gasification plants. So until storage technologies are widely commercially available, as you build more wind and solar, you aren’t ever off the hook for base load capacity.

When TCLP took a desire to increase renewable energy, added a desire for local generation and combined all that with a desire to build base load capacity … they ended up at biomass as the leading candidate. They also liked that it created local jobs.

“You know, back when we made the strategic plan, everybody was all about renewable—including the state, with the renewable portfolio standard—and wood qualified,” Coco said. “But now when I look at it, I wonder, does our community really value something else, CO2 footprint.”

By this, Coco is referring to Dodd’s preference for natural gas, which produces significantly less CO2 than wood does. And if climate change is really what we’re trying to address, a fuel’s CO2 contribution is compelling to consider.

In late 2009, early 2010, TCLP began to more publicly head down the biomass path. After I attended some TCLP meetings and tracked the issue in the newspaper, it seemed clear that early on, forest health was a large concern among people opposed to the biomass plant.

Jeff Gibbs, one of Dodd’s chief partners in the opposition effort, has researched forest health and has worked on a film documentary about it; he is clearly a passionate and sincere defender of the forests. TCLP brought in a Ph.D. forester from Michigan Technological University to show that the volume of wood burned by this plant would be easily exceeded by annual growth of our forests. Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, with help from Gibbs, brought in their own Ph.D. to say that forests would suffer if all the biomass plants now planned in Michigan were built—broadening the issue beyond TCLP (Opponents say TCLP was planning four plants but not being forthright.)

For me, one of the most telling moments of the debate came when TCLP had a forum where a top DNR forest manager said the department is mandated to manage the forest for forest health. The DNR says no to increased cutting all the time, he said. Nothing new. Even pressure from 20 biomass plants wouldn’t change it. I didn’t do an opinion survey after the meeting, but my sense was that his statements meant essentially nothing to the crowd gathered there.

Yet if what the DNR man said was true, I felt it was one of the most important points in the debate. And besides, the amount of wood that TCLP’s biomass plants would have burned was significantly less than what had been harvested for a Gaylord chipboard factory that closed a couple of years ago. If the forests sustained that cutting for years, why couldn’t they sustain TCLP’s cutting? I admit that was persuasive to me.

I spoke with Greg Reisig, chairman of NMEAC, about the DNR forester moment and forest health in general. “TCLP said they were going to be checking logging practices to see if sustainable forestry was being used—how were they going to do that?” Reisig said. “These guys are out in the middle of nowhere cutting wood and you’re going to have somebody out there with them?”

I said, “Well, sustainable forestry certification is nothing new, has been around for 15 years or more, doesn’t seem that out there to me.”

“Yeah, right.” Reisig said.

So, again, the notion of information that’s either accepted or rejected out of hand. Are our minds made up and we choose the information to support? My bias: I want to get off coal. Is that why I’m willing to believe in forest certification procedures? Plus, again my bias. I feel that logging today, though not perfect, is a million times more perfect than 100 years ago (have you looked at any historical photos of Northern Michigan lately?), and the forests have made amazing progress since that devastation. I feel our forests are resilient and will grow. But no matter how gently we carve down a mountaintop for coal, it will never grow back.

Reisig’s response to my thoughts that wood might help us get off coal, even if it was just a small amount: “TCLP tried to make this wood versus coal. That’s just bullshit.” His point, there are other ways to create base load electricity, including things that aren’t even on the market yet.

At one point in the debate—April 2010—the Michigan Land Use Institute put out a report that offered an alternative plan for TCLP. It focused on energy efficiency and accepted as part of the mix a small wood gasification plant. Coincidentally, the founder of MLUI, Keith Schneider, who is no longer an employee there, but who has since done extensive work for CO2 reduction initiatives nationally and internationally, was hired by TCLP to help with the education campaign. As evidence of how emotionally charged people became, Gibbs sent an email to several people in the environmental community alleging a conspiracy among TCLP and MLUI and Schneider to sell biomass to the public.

“I contacted Jeff to say, ‘hey, let’s stop attacking everybody and focus on a positive solution,’ ” Reisig said.

As the wood gasification debate evolved, my sense was the public’s concern for forest health became overshadowed by concern about air pollution. A key piece of the opposition message was that wood emissions are dirtier than coal emissions. This was a difficult thing for me to accept, knowing that, for one, women of child bearing age cannot eat fish from the Great Lakes largely because of mercury contamination from coal—one of the greatest environmental travesties I know of.

I attended a meeting where TCLP brought in combustion experts and toxicologists to discuss particulate emissions from the wood gasification plant. They said that coal emissions are clearly worse. I approached Reisig and M’Lynn Hartwell, who was key in organizing opposition to the biomass plant. I said, “this is a really important decision we have to make and I really think we need to be factual about it and the idea that you are putting out a message that wood emissions are dirtier than coal is really absurd.” It was when I made that statement that I realized I had no business writing an article about biomass and TCLP that purported to be unbiased, because my biases were as strong and genuine as theirs.

But was the situation as clear as my opinion led me to believe? I knew that some coal plants when switched to burn wood reduced their mercury by tenfold, reduced SO2 by tenfold and reduced NOx by 70 percent. But it can be nuanced. Some coal beds have more mercury than other beds. Some air pollution control systems remove more than others.

And the CO2 debate is a world unto itself. Some say wood releases slightly more CO2 than coal. Others say wood is net zero because it gets re-sequestered into new flora. Some opponents, notably Traverse City’s Dr. Laura Shea, felt that wood particulate emissions, most important PM2.5—very fine particulate emissions—are reason enough to kill biomass.

It’s undeniable that even a small amount of particulate matter is worse than no particulate matter, but for perspective, TCLP’s scientists reported that “the maximum impact to ambient PM2.5 concentrations is less than 1 percent of the impact of a typical single outdoor wood boiler,” and that the wood gasification plant would contribute about one-tenth the PM2.5 emitted by the former coal plant.

One person I really wanted to hear from was Traverse City Mayor Chris Bzdok, the same Bzdok who is a partner in the renowned environmental law firm Olson, Bzdok & Howard.

“Did you support the biomass plant?” I asked the mayor. “I supported 100 percent the idea of checking it out further,” Bzdok said.

So, what was it like when you saw the debate play out the way it did, with the information that was being put out there?“I spent the first few months of the process being really ticked off at some of the things being said by some people,” Bzdok
said. “But I have grown by that process. It’s not for us to be surprised, not for us to say, boy, what is going on with the
public here, they are confused. It is our goal to bring forward projects in a way that will meet the needs and desires the
public has. That’s what TCLP attempted to do with the proposal for local generation in the form of biomass, and the public ultimately rejected that, so it is back to the drawing board.”

The most common objection?

“The number one thing I heard was about siting an air emissions source in the greater Traverse City area. We could talk about that being a micro source and that this is a gasification plant, not an incinerator, so the emissions are safer, but ultimately it came down to people saying, I chose to live here, to work here, to retire here for certain reasons, and one of those is clean air.”

I asked him if that is NIMBYism, you don’t want to live near the impacts of your decisions, but other communities can live with that for you? Is it especially bad if you have a less polluting technology and choose not to use it?

The mayor kind of laughed, the sort of laugh that means I’m choosing not to answer that, and we moved on. [A related note here about a natural gas plant. Since the TCLP debate began, speculation about extensive natural gas reserves has happened in Northern Michigan, but the exploration involves a process called fracking that many people oppose based
on environmental concerns. Is it right for Northern Michigan to burn lots of natural gas but oppose drilling for natural gas here? Fracking is used in 90 percent of natural gas wells.]

So what’s next for Traverse City and the need to have electricity? TCLP just signed a five-year contract for coal power from downstate and for some wind power generated near McBain, so electricity is assured for a while. Strategic plans are on hold until after the November votes.

And meanwhile, the NMEAC and MLUI are sponsoring a small group that meets to discuss the future possibilities of power supply in Northwest Michigan. One TCLP commissioner, John Taylor, a utility energy efficiency consultant by profession, sits in on the conversation, and participants hope that TCLP participation will eventually become official.

NMEAC chair Reisig envisions a full community dialogue, like the Grand Vision process, but focused on energy, something he had asked TCLP to do much earlier. “We’d consider all the options, everything would be on the table,” he said.

“Would biomass be on the table?” I asked.

He paused, “Everything would be on the table,” he said.

Reflecting on the arc of the issue, Taylor says, “Yes, it was a little heart sinking moving away from that 30 by 20 goal. It was exciting to think that we could have been such a leader in renewable energy. But this community is still clearly demanding that we lead on green energy, and that’s the part that doesn’t make my heart sink. This is an exciting, vibrant community, and even if I don’t agree with some critics, like Laura Shea or Margaret Dodd, the fact that they took that much time away from their families to work on that issue is impressive. What a neat community that all these people care so much and care enough to be out there. I go home with a smile on my face and say to my wife, what a neat community we have. I look at this very optimistically.”

My purpose in writing this story is not to push wood gasification—I still have questions about biomass, and besides, it’snot likely to be chosen anyway. My purpose is to encourage you to get involved in the power dialogue and when you do, turn the spotlight on yourself and your own biases as much as on the issue itself.

What information do you accept without question? What information do you reject based simply on who is saying it. If you believe climate change is caused by human activity (another bias: I do), then you might agree with me that this is one of the most important dialogues you might be a part of in your lifetime. And if you vote this November to give yourself the authority to approve or deny power infrastructure investment, then you should be informed. And, yes, we owe it to our kids to get it right, to make the smartest decision possible based on facts we have in front of us. Stay tuned.

Do some research of your own:

planfortc.com: A website run by Mayor Chris Bzdok about local issues, including those related to Traverse City Light & Power

jobsandenergy.com: A website launched by Traverse City environmentalist M’Lynn Hartwell devoted to low impact energy solutions.

mlui.org/specialreports.asp download the 20-20 by 2020 report. An analysis with recommendations by Michigan Land Use Institute, with discussion of feed-in tariffs and how such funding source could help kickstart a leading edge energy infrastructure around Traverse City.