To help her fight the gravest crisis facing world civilization, Lansing’s new sustainability manager, Lori Welch, jokes that she has a staff of three: “me, myself and I.”
“I’m going to be hiring an intern soon, so that’s very exciting,” she added.
Welch is an optimist by nature. It doesn’t hurt that she’s found a lot of kindred spirits since she took office last summer.
The Capital Area Sustainability Partnership, a budding coalition of cities, townships, businesses, nonprofits, environmentalists and other parties from the tri-county region, began to meet in mid-January, with Welch on board. A nine-member city sustainability commission will be named “soon,” Welch said. Ingham County declared a climate emergency in July. East Lansing, Meridian Township and other local jurisdictions are ramping up plans to curb carbon emissions. The growing local buzz mirrors a renewed sense of climate urgency at the federal level, as the Biden administration takes over.
Shrinking the region’s carbon footprint to mitigate climate change, and preparing for the changes that are too late to stop, is a job that knows no boundaries.
“There’s definitely an awakening,” Welch said. “In a way, there’s nowhere to go but up. We can only get better at this, and it’s not a choice.”
Grand totems of this awakening are visible at all three of greater Lansing’s most venerable pillars — MSU, state government and General Motors. Acres of solar carports shelter 5,000 parking spaces on MSU’s south campus. A labyrinth of deep pits sloshing with liquid glycol will soon bring geothermal energy to the state Capitol. This year, General Motors made a commitment to power its facilities, including its LEED certified Delta Township plant, with 100 percent renewable energy and convert its production to electric vehicles by 2034.
Those are big dots, but there’s a lot of connecting to be done.
Jeff Andresen, a professor of meteorology and climatology at MSU, spends much of his time explaining the local effects of climate change as a member of the university’s climate outreach team.
“The changes are happening now,” Andresen said. “We’re living it.”
To catalogue the world’s cascading climate catastrophes — from melting polar ice, wildfires, hurricanes and floods to the Himalayan glacier that slid away last Sunday, crushed a dam and killed over 30 people — would probably dampen your will to read this much further, so we’ll keep it local.
Record-high Great Lakes water levels and shoreline erosion have had a “major, major” economic impact on the Great Lakes, Andresen said, although drier conditions in late 2020 have slowed the damage for now. Most of the warming so far in Michigan has been measured at night and in the winter and spring, but hotter extremes in summer are likely coming.
“Relative to other parts of the U.S., and other parts of the world, Michigan has a fairly low frequency of weather and climate-related problems,” Andresen said. “We don’t have hurricanes, there’s less of a risk of wildfires.”
However, Andresen reported that Michigan is averaging 10% to 15% more rain and snow a year, mostly rain, than 10 years ago.
“That’s a lot,” he said. All the wettest years on record, save one or two, came in the last 10 to 15 years, with 2019 the wettest year on record. The all-time record for heaviest 24-hour precipitation event in state history was set in Mason County in July 2019 — just under 13 inches. The old record, set in 1914, was 9.7 inches.
“We didn’t just break the record, we shattered it,” Andresen said, sounding almost too excited.
He ticked off a “wettest hits” of recent Michigan floods, starting with the most expensive weather related disaster in state history, the August 2014 floods in Detroit and southwestern Michigan, and ending with last May’s dam-bursting floods in Midland.
That’s only a preview of things to come if the world conducts business as usual, according to Western Michigan University biologist David Karowe.
And Michigan is in a relatively sweet spot. Karowe doesn’t let a single climate lecture go by without stressing that a “very strong ethical and social justice issue” underpins the crisis. Developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia are spewing most of the greenhouse gases, by far, while relatively sheltered areas like the American Midwest escape most of the harm.
“The people who are causing the problem are not the same people who are suffering the adverse impacts,” Karowe said.
Still, if “business goes on as usual,” the Great Lakes region will experience more than 50 days a year over 95 degrees by 2100, according to Karowe.
Longer growing seasons sound great, but they will be offset by pre-frost “false springs” that have already devastated the state’s cherry and apple crops. Ice-free lakes sound like a plus, too, until freighters start bottoming out on unseen shallows.
Hang on tight while climate journalist David Wallace-Wells takes the story from there. Terry Link, a consultant and the founder of MSU’s Office of Sustainability, uses a scary clip by the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth” when he visits local groups to talk about climate change.
If the climate continues to warm unchecked, Wallace-Wells warns, the world is facing $600 trillion in damage from climate change induced disasters such as hurricanes, mudslides, droughts and wildfires— more than double the wealth in the world that exists today.
“We’ve already left the world we grew up in,” Wallace-Wells declares. “The planet is now at its hottest point in human history. Just how bad it will be will always be up to us.”
Lori Welch isn’t used to fighting invisible, world-burning gases. Her interest in the environment began when she was a kid, pitching in for a Grand River cleanup. Before Mayor Andy Schor named her Lansing’s first sustainability manager on April 22, 2020 (Earth Day), she worked on recycling, compost, waste management and storm water in Lansing for over 20 years.
Navigating the complexities of a greenhouse gas audit is a long way from pulling galoshes out of a river. Welch admits it’s a “jump” for many people to wrap their heads around the largely unseen changes swirling through the planet’s atmosphere, land and water.
“It can be overwhelming, but more and more people are realizing a huge sense of urgency,” she said.
“I’m on red alert over here,” Ingham County Commissioner Chris Trubac said. “The urgency is enormous, and I think the other commissioners agree with me.”
Trubac said he’s made it a “top priority” to reduce the carbon footprint of county facilities, beginning with a full energy audit. He wants to see the county set firm timelines for getting its facilities to 100 percent renewable energy, zero emissions and carbon neutrality.
“We have a lot of square footage in our facilities,” he said. After nearly two years on the job, he’s still finding new county departments and buildings. “With that comes a lot of responsibility and a lot of opportunity.”
Welch, Trubac, East Lansing environmental services director Cathy DeShambo and other area leaders are still hammering out the framework of the Capital Area Sustainability Partnership. As the group grows and sorts out who specializes in what, it will break into units tackling energy, water, waste and other issues.
In most cities — including Lansing — the building and transportation sectors emit the most greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, according to Welch.
“I’d like to see us make existing facilities more efficient and create solar arrays and other renewable energy sources on some of them as well,” Welch said. She also would like to see Lansing’s fleet move to electric vehicles.
Andresen said the action is welcome and long overdue.
“Some communities have begun, for the first time, to consider the climate piece of their policy,” he said.
Meridian Township is a step or two ahead of Lansing, with an energy team, an environmental commission and a “green team” specializing in recycling and waste reduction, all citizen-led. There are conspicuous solar arrays at the township hall, South Fire Station and Marketplace on the Green. Meridian is a complicated jurisdiction with 85 separate utility accounts. With the help of the experts, township sustainability coordinator LeRoy Harvey expects the township to complete a full-scale greenhouse gas audit soon.
The only way to deal with a large-scale crisis is to respond on a large scale. Welch’s plan to develop cross-departmental sustainability programs in Lansing, and the broader Capital Area Sustainability Partnership, are early efforts to scale up local response to climate change by pooling ideas, people and resources.
Some of the area’s major economic players have already begun to take advantage of their capacity to invest in big new projects.
General Motors signed a purchase agreement Sept. 30 for a massive 180 MW solar project in Arkansas that will supply 100 percent of power for Lansing Delta Township Assembly by and the Wentzville Assembly plant in Missouri, “with the remaining power allocated to Lansing Grand River Assembly,” according to GM spokeswoman Erin Davis. When the solar project comes on line in 2023, GM estimates it will be 60 percent of the way toward its goal of getting 100 percent of its electricity for U.S. sites from renewable sources by 2030. This follows the automaker’s dramatic January pledge to stop manufacturing gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.
In the past two years, through summer heat and winter ice, workers have bored over 272 holes, each 500 feet deep, around the state Capitol. The $4 million geothermal heating system, part of a $70 million Capitol Infrastructure Upgrade, will save an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 annually antiquated heating and cooling system.
Another regional heavyweight, MSU, has erected 45 acres of solar carports that are expected to generate about 15 percent of the campus energy demand, with more to come.
But what about the little guy? Heather Douglas, an MSU associate professor, has been working on energy issues for over 25 years. She moved to the area about two years ago from Waterloo, Canada, where she ran a de-carbonization project as associate director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy.
Douglas has made it her business to help individual households scale up their own response to climate change as best they can.
“There’s this sense that it’s all systemic, it’s about policy, and that’s important,” Douglas said. “But about a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from what we do with our households. It’s about our personal choices in the coming decades.”
Douglas has developed an eye-opening website that graphically demonstrates the carbon footprint of your life at https://greenhouse.cal.msu.edu.
Type in basic information such as where you live, the make of car you own and the approximate number of miles you drive and the site will calculate your carbon footprint. (Douglas said the site does not collect information or check on what you input, so “feel free to lie.”)
The fun part of the site is a “playground” where you change inputs and watch the results. Add solar panels, buy an electric car, move to a place where the utility uses more renewable energy, switch out your old refrigerator and the squares indicating energy use turn a satisfying green.
“It’s a big part of the national picture, something that can literally and figuratively empower people to make changes,” Douglas said.
Elephant in the room
As the climate crisis comes to a head, environmentalists have pushed Lansing’s Board of Water and Light to move away from fossil fuels as fast as possible, with mixed results.
Construction on the utility’s $500 million new gas-fired Delta Energy Park will be “substantially finished” by fall, according to BWL General Manager Dick Peffley, although the plant will be available for limited use as early as May.
The utility says it will phase out coal by 2025, generate 100 percent “clean energy” (renewables plus energy efficiency) by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2040.
The coal-fired Eckert Station is dark already, with no turbines running. (One of Eckert’s six units is being held in reserve until May in case of a “regional emergency.”) The BWL’s other coal-burning plant, in Delta Township, is on track to close in 2024.
But the decision to bridge the coal and renewable eras with a large gas plant was deeply troubling for members of the Lansing Environmental Action Team and other climate conscious citizens. Burning natural gas is widely estimated to result in 50% to 60% less greenhouse gas emission than burning coal, but that’s far from zero, and recent research suggests that the harmful impact of methane, a component of natural gas, may be grossly underestimated. Terry Link said BWL’s new plant is the “result of decision-makers not recognizing that the climate emergency is upon us.”
Peffley responded that BWL’s investment in solar and wind arrays like the Ranger Power array, under construction in Shiawassee County, is growing so fast that by “with the sun shining and the wind blowing, by next year, we’ll be able to supply about 50 percent of our summer peak load with renewables.” As battery technology improves and the energy collected in summer can be stored in winter, Peffley expects the Delta Energy Park to settle into a permanent role of backup for cheaper renewables.
If that’s the case, Heather Douglas is willing to give the utility the benefit of the doubt.
“I know some of my colleagues in the Lansing area are really despairing that BWL is building a new gas plant,” Douglas said. “But the BWL is thinking about that time in January when suddenly it’s super cold, the wind stops blowing and the sun angle is so low there’s no electricity.”
As the climate crisis reaches a head, Douglas and many others plan to hold the utility’s feet to the fire.
“Natural gas is a nice backup, but it can’t be your base load,” she said. “Given how inexpensive they are, it’s irresponsible for utilities not to move their base load to renewables.”
After a hope-incinerating climate lecture from David Karowe or David Wallace-Wells, it’s hard to accept optimism as a renewable resource. But for the growing network of climate un-changers in greater Lansing, there is no workable alternative.
“I have a 12-year-old and that is a big motivator for me to work on these things,” Heather Douglas said. “I have moments of grief for the hard impacts we’ve seen, but I don’t see cause for abject despair. We have 10 years now to really make an impact and the technology is there.”
“Optimism is part of the solution,” Meridian Township’s LeRoy Harvey said. “Living in fear is not the answer. We need people not to go out and do the things they are inspired to do.”
Ingham County’s Chris Trubac has been oscillating between pessimism and hope since his undergraduate days.
“Nothing leaves you with despair more than going through a few years of studying conservation,” he said. “But with the federal government ready to take this on, there’s never been a time for greater optimism, and we have officials at the local level who feel the same way. If we give in to despair, we’ve already lost. We might as well give up and play PlayStation.”