BWL approves natural gas plant; environmentalists disagree

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Lansing’s Board of Water and Light approved a $500 million natural gas plant that environmentalists argue should have been a renewable energy plant.

During the BWL’s regular board meeting on March 27, board members gave final approval to replace the coal-powered Erickson Power Plant with a gas-fired power plant. The plant, which is expected to be completed by 2021, will reduce BWL carbon emissions by 80 percent.

Local residents awaiting the decision of the BWL board meeting on March 27, 2018.

Although the BWL is working to rely less on coal, environmentalists worry about the impact fracking has on the groundwater.

Hydraulic fracking extracts natural gas by using high pressure liquids to blast target rock formations apart.

Ron Byrnes, who is the business manager for IBEW 342, which represents BWL’s union, said that he supports the approval of the plant because it benefits the local and state economy.

“I think that it’s an important economic driver for the economy, it’s good-paying jobs not only during the process of the plant being built but after also,” Byrnes said.

According to a press release issued by the BWL on March 27, the plant will create 1,200 temporary construction jobs. In addition to helping to local economy, Byrnes said the plant is less costly for the residents of Lansing as opposed to bringing in power from out of state.

Byrnes said that although this plant relies on fossil fuels, it is acting as a bridge to renewable energy technology.

“The technology, in my opinion, is not there yet. The technology for wind and solar and battery storage cannot support the demand in base-load power needs of the community,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes said that he hopes the technology will be there someday and that he supports green energy and moving in that direction.

“This plant will bridge between the technology of today and hopefully the improved technology, which will move us toward more renewable in the future,” Byrnes said.

The national environmental organization the Sierra Club is one of the groups that spoke against the plant. The Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter organizing representative, Andrew Sarpolis, said he is against the approval of the plant because it isn’t sustainable.

Sarpolis said that electricity is a huge emitter of pollution and now they are looking into how to replace the city’s current energy needs.

Sarpolis said that many of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracking are carcinogens, which end up polluting the groundwater during the gas extraction.

“It’s contaminated drinking supplies, there’s a lot of really nasty things that have happened, so there is a lot of concern with extraction,” Sarpolis said.

In addition to the contamination of drinking water, Sarpolis said there is a lot of concern with the climate as well.

“Methane, which is what natural gas largely is, is much more heat trapping than carbon dioxide, so it takes a much smaller amount of methane to have the same impact as carbon dioxide,” Sarpolis said.

Sarpolis also said that there are cities that are powered by renewable energy right now and there are cities planning to be there. Cities such as Akureyri, Iceland; Palmas, Brazil; and Nyon, Switzerland get at least 70 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.

“As a proof of concept there are areas that are already doing this, so I think that it is a little disingenuous to say that the technology may not be there and if it’s not, we’re right on the cusp,” Sarpolis said. “For Lansing to say it’s not possible, I think there is more to the story than that.”

BWL’s communications coordinator, Amy Adamy, said in an email that the BWL will purchase the natural gas from the pipeline, therefore, they cannot control whether the gas is fracked or not.

The current President and CEO of the Lansing Chamber of Commerce, Tim Daman, said that he supports the plant because it matches the Chamber’s energy policy positions statements.

“We follow and get involved in areas and projects that are going to have positive impact and outcome in our ability to attract new businesses and job creation, and energy certainly is one of those areas that is very important to those efforts,” Daman said.

Daman who has been the President and CEO for nine years, said that they have supported and will continue to support renewable energy, but the natural gas plant will be the bridge to cleaner energy options.

“One hundred percent renewable is just not feasible today to keep our energy supply in a reliable and affordable manner,” Daman said.

Evan Morton, who is an environmental sustainability student at MSU, spoke against the plant during the meeting when it was approved. Morton said that he is against the plant because it is not the best option for the community.

Morton, who is currently the sustainability fellow for the MSU Student Housing Cooperative, said that the approval of the plant was like a slap in the face and that he would have preferred renewable energy options like wind or solar power.

Sharlissa Moore, who is an assistant professor at Michigan State University and an expert in civil and environmental engineering, said that she fully believes that 100 percent renewable energy future is possible.

“There are a lot of complications and complexities in getting there and it’s going to be a lengthy large scale transition,” Moore said.

Moore said that solar and wind are very advances and that the prices for both have been falling dramatically, especially for solar, however there are technological challenges.

Moore said that she doesn’t believe in fossil fuels being a bridge to renewable energy.

Chairperson of BWL’s Board of Commissioners, David Price, said that he feels this will be the last plant that BWL builds in terms of a traditional power plant.

“Technology will change, we don’t know how quickly or how affordably, but I’m fairly confident that in 25 to 30 years there will be no fossil fuel plants in the BWL’s portfolio,” said Price.

Price said that one of the things he always considers is how affordable the power is for the community. Price also said that the BWL is not opposed to the environmentalists.

“I think that most of us on the commission consider ourselves to be concerned very much about the environment, but were also concerned about making power affordable and reliable for our customers,” Price said.