By MICHAEL GERSTEIN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Holland is looking to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels after years of litigation about a failed multimillion dollar proposal to expand its coal plant.
It’s not feasible to meet the city’s energy needs without fossil fuels, said Dan Nally, the business services director for the Holland Board of Public Works.
But environmentalists worry about a city council vote looming Nov. 28 that could result in a new natural gas plant for the city.
Holland recently approved two contracts with wind farms to meet Michigan’s 2015 deadline for 10 percent clean electrical energy. But the city’s base power needs remain a daunting problem for officials trying to address growing energy demands and an aging coal plant.
Holland hired a global energy consultant to come up with a solution, and the company reported natural gas as the city’s best option.
Critics say they worry that the $40 to $60 million plant would use natural gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing, and that its steep cost would mean fewer resources for renewable energy projects.
Hydrofracking — a method used to fish out deep pockets of natural gas – has drawn staunch criticism from environmentalists who say it threatens the environment and human health.
“It’s strange, because things are working on two separate tracks,” said Jan O’Connell, Michigan energy issues organizer for the Sierra Club. “Because for over two years now, Holland has a sustainability committee, and they’ve been pushing an energy plan, looking for renewable, looking for energy efficiency and looking for an option other than building the coal plant.
“They’ve been moving on this separate track and, all the sudden, come August they switched to the gas plan. And they sped up this process like crazy fast — trying to build this gas plant without taking the energy plan into consideration.”
Susan Harley, of Clean Water Action in East Lansing, a grassroots environmental group, said she wonders why officials aren’t pushing for more clean energy.
“I’m still concerned that the city has not adequately looked at energy efficiency and renewable energy as far as their choices,” she said.
Working with Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club released a report last year detailing environmental concerns associated with fracking.
They reported that chemicals involved in the process could pollute fresh water supplies, divert water from local watersheds, increase air pollution and even cause seismic disruption — although the study said more research is necessary to verify these claims and chemicals involved in the process aren’t currently available for public disclosure, making that research difficult.
The two groups are asking Gov. Rick Snyder to mandate disclosure and require more stringent environmental regulation of the natural gas industry. Snyder has taken no such action.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club is urging Holland not to go through with building the gas plant.
But Holland is growing.
And while at the forefront of environmentalists’ minds, hydraulic fracturing is a more distant problem for city officials.
The Holland utility’s Nally said, “The Sierra Club has some very strong ideas on their belief system and they generally don’t want any fossil fuels used. But unfortunately for them — unfortunately for all of us — the technology does not exist today to walk away from all fossil fuels.
“We’ve got to be able to provide power 24/7 365,” Nally said. “And that’s what some people miss in their dogmatic approach to their view of life, and I wish there was some more common sense applied at times.”
Holland’s situation is by no means unique. Many advocates on opposing sides say the Great Lakes region is at a turning point, with opposing interests clamoring for public support to move toward cleaner energy or to expand natural gas extraction.
Michigan voters rejected a constitutional amendment to require increased use of renewable energy. Supporters of the failed ballot proposal then released a post-election poll that voters support renewables but rejected the proposal because it would have amended the constitution.
Environmental advocates like Harley and O’Connell say they worry that Holland will inadvertently support the fracking industry if the city’s gas plant is approved, and their organizations are rallying to generate greater community opposition.
O’Connell said her biggest concern is that the city overlooked the potential of renewable energy sources like wind.
“To me,” she said, “the sky is the limit in terms of energy efficiency and renewable.”
But Nally said the city has no control over how natural gas suppliers to the proposed plant will get their product.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release its own congressionally mandated report on fracking by the end of the year.
Michael Gerstein writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By MICHAEL GERSTEIN