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Wednesday, February 17,2010

GENERATIONS of GENERATION

Lansing’s Board of Water and Light fires up 125 candles

by Lawrence Cosentino

 

On Jan. 26, 1885, the voters of Lansing approved a bond issue of $100,000 for a public water system. The people took control of the utility by a ringing vote of 445 to 49. The spigot of debate over how to manage public utilities opened along with the waterworks, and it hasn’t shut off since.

Anthropologists talk about “invisible networks” of water and power, too often taken for granted. But Lansing has a long tradition of taking a lively interest, and pride, in the state’s oldest public utility. From the birth of the system to the current debate over whether to build a new power plant, the control valve never shuts.


James Weeks, director of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association, said his group’s 41 public utilities look up to Lansing as the biggest and oldest in the state.


“One hundred twenty-five years of public power is something the community can take pride in,” Weeks said.


Like the 800 miles of water main buried under the city, the process can get tortuous. In 1953, water fluoridation was widely thought to be a communist plot, and Lansing voters rejected it by a margin of two to one. However, by 1965, three-fourths of the voters approved, and Soviet tanks never rolled into Frances Park.


Public debate over utilities predates 1885, when opponents of a municipally owned water system feared higher taxes and public debt, along with the potential for favoritism. Private firms, they said, could handle the job more efficiently.


Sure enough, there was soon brazen drinking at the public trough — 10 troughs in all, provided for Lansing’s horses by 1915.


To fire-wary Lansing residents, the advantages of a publicly managed utility were clear. Before the Water Board, as it was called in those innocent days, you went to a well or a spring for water. Water for fire fighting was pumped from the Grand River or drawn from 1,000-barrel brick cisterns downtown. Disastrous fires could strike any time.


Within a year of the new utility’s birth, 16 miles of mains with 167 hydrants were in place, along with two pumps on Cedar Street that moved over a million gallons a day.


When water first surged through Lansing’s pipes, electricity was barely a twinkle in Thomas Edison’s workshop. In 1885, the incandescent lamp was only 6 years old. The first execution by electric chair was five years away.


But light quickly caught up to water. In February 1885, one month after voters approved the waterworks, Lansing hired a private company to put up 12 arc lights of 2,000 candle power each, to light street intersections. A new dynamo sent electricity to the few lucky residents who had newfangled incandescents.


At first, the lights were strung in series, like old-fashioned Christmas lights — if one went out, so did all the others.


Intrigued by data showing that street lights cost $19.50 a year less to operate under a municipally owned system, a Lansing citizens’ committee looked into buying the electric company.


Mayor A.O. Bement made the case plain in his inaugural address on May 2, 1892: “Our electric light plant, run in connection with the water works, will make quite an annual saving in salaries and expense of operation.” Clerical work, management, land and even some equipment could do double duty.


In 1892, 21 years after Stanley met Livingstone, 27 years before Laurel met Hardy, a combined Board of Water Works and Electric Lighting Commissioners was formed. Taxpayers voted in a special election to bond out $60,000 for an electric light plant.


Water, meet light. But please don’t touch.


A brochure published by the Board of Water and Light in 1966, at the height of American industrial growth, divides the utility’s history into four eras. The first was its birth. The brochure dubs the second era “the struggle for survival,” but it was more of a war of attrition. Before 1919, the board had to compete with the Michigan Power Co., then operating in Lansing without a franchise. A legal challenge from the Lansing BWL failed, but when the Michigan Power Co. lost money and went into receivership, Lansing took over its local assets, from wires to poles to the old Ottawa Power Station.


The stage was set for the next two eras: first, post-World War I growth; then, post- World War II growth.


That’s where the meter spins like crazy.


All the bar graphs on BWL literature from the 1930s to the 1980s go up like rockets.


The Eckert Power Station at Moores Park, built in the 1920s, was beefed up with new turbines several times until 1967’s “Fifth Rebuilding,” as it’s biblically called in the BWL literature. Along the way, a new Ottawa Power Plant, built in the late 1930s and decommissioned in the 1990s, came and went. The Erickson station came on line in 1973.


But growth isn’t what it used to be. Even the annual 1.4 percent rise in demand for electricity forecast by the BWL two years ago is up in the air.


“The market has flipped,” Weeks said.


“The economy is down and demand is down.”


Furthermore, growth is no longer the sole yardstick of public health, economic or otherwise. “The United States…is serving only six percent of the world’s population, but generates over one-third of the electricity produced in the world,” boasted the 1966 BWL brochure.


That’s nothing to brag about anymore. Change
“electricity” to “greenhouse gases” and “one-third” to “one-fourth” in
the above statistic and you have just one of the problems utilities
face in 2010.


What then, following the 1966 brochure’s paradigm, is the fifth era of the utility’s history?


“It’s
the era of renewable energy and energy efficiency,” BWL General Manger
J. Peter Lark said. “We are in what many may call today a post-coal
era.”


Since Lark
took over at BWL in 2007, the utility’s portfolio of renewable energy
has grown to include methane gas captured from a Granger landfill,
revived hydroelectric turbines at the the Eckert Plant and the largest
solar array in Michigan. The BWL’s total percentage of renewable energy
is at 5 percent, halfway to a statewide mandate of 10 percent by 2015.


“It’s
probably the most exciting time in the utility’s recent history from my
point of view, and the most challenging, too,” Lark said.


Meanwhile, Lark said, he remains committed to keeping rates low.


“Lansing’s rates are among the lowest in the state, if not the lowest,” Weeks said.


Janice Beecher, director of the Institute of Public Utilities Research and Education at
MSU, studies problems facing public utilities. She makes planning sound
like throwing a boomerang at a kangaroo in an earthquake.


“Both
supply and demand recalibrating at the same time, and this is all
happening in the context of a really difficult environment, especially
in Michigan,” Beecher said.


All of this, Weeks added, is happening against the backdrop of an aging fleet of baseload generators.


At
the BWL’s flagship Eckert Station, the pulverizers that crush the coal,
the furnaces that burn it and the turbines that generate the juice look
almost exactly the same as they did 50 years ago.


The
debate over how to get the utility through the coming bottleneck is
only warming up. [See related story.]


Beecher said Lark and his team at
BWL are well equipped to handle the next round of challenges. Weeks
agreed, citing Lark’s background as chairman of the Michigan Public
Service Commission, where he authored Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s 21st
Century Energy Plan.


“It used to be, everyone came up as an engineer,” Weeks said. “To get someone from the policy side is very positive.” He brings in renewables and energy efficiency.


Meanwhile,
the people will be watching.


The BWL’s third resource, after water and
light, is public debate. Weeks stood up in favor of building the new
plant at a public meeting last year, but said last week that “a lot has
changed” since then and the panel may have been right to advise the
utility to hold off. He cited uncertainties in energy demand and climate change regulation.


“Kudos to the panel,” Weeks said. “But that’s one of the advantages of public power.


You go through this open process.”


At
a public meeting on the proposed plant last fall, James Clift, policy
director of the Michigan Environmental Council and opponent of the
proposed plant, put it this way.


“One
nice thing about owning our own electric utility here in Lansing is
that we don’t have to worry about pressures from the shareholders,”
Clift said. “We don’t have to worry about Wall Street. We decide as a
community what’s best for us. We’re the ratepayers. We’re the owners.”


Almost everyone agrees that churning out juice is no longer the Holy Grail it was in 1966.


“There’s
a lot of shared agreement about the value of efficiency today,” Beecher
said. “There’s more controversy about supply options, but I think
everybody agrees we should use our resources efficiently.”


Instead
of treating megawatts as output, like a factory counts widgets, the
preferred phrase in the utility field is now “energy services,”
including conservation, efficiency and renewable energy.


“I
wouldn’t trust Detroit Edison to provide these energy services long
term,” Clift said. (Edison is investor-owned.) “I don’t think they have
the commitment.” The sticking point, he said, is decoupling rates and
production from profits. “But there’s no reason a municipal electric
can’t embrace it.”


Just
how centralized, or de-centralized, will the BWL’s “energy services” be
in another 125 years? Will every house settle in snugly with its own
solar, wind or geothermal power source, or will the whole world be
wirelessly linked to an orbiting mega-plasma nuclear space furnace?


Lark said it’s hard to predict what will happen in the next five years, let alone the next 125.


“Our
grandchildren are going to see a dramatically different utility
industry than what we see today,” Lark said. “Exactly what it is, I’m
not sure.”

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