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Board of Water & Light seeks public input on future energy mix

Open house or house on fire?

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A delicate dance of expectations between Lansing’s Board of Water and Light and its owners — the public — has quietly started.

With the global climate crisis sharpening by the day, the BWL held the first of five open houses last week inviting public comment to help the utility shape its next Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP.

The IRP, revised every four or five years, sets out the mix of energy sources the utility will use “for decades to come,” according to the utility’s website, and is revised every four or five years.

The BWL has committed to 30 percent clean energy by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030, but many of the 50 or so visitors at last week’s open house urged the utility to move more aggressively toward renewable energy sources.

The open house marked a change in format for soliciting public input on and IRP. Visitors typed out comments on a bank of computers and chatted with BWL staffers at a series of stations where various future energy scenarios were displayed.

Rebecca Payne, a member of the Lansing Environmental Action Team, was among the visitors.

“They make it sound so shiny and polished, but look at the bottom line — 40 percent clean energy by 2030,” she said. “We need to be 100 percent. This is an emergency situation.”

BWL General Manager Dick Peffley said he’s listening.

“You tell us how fast you want us to transition to 100 percent renewables,” Peffley said. “I’ll do it tomorrow, but it comes at a cost. Anybody that wants 100 percent renewable energy, we’ll deliver it to you tomorrow, at a 10 percent premium.”
Peffley was referring to the utility’s GreenWise program, which offers ratepayers a voluntary choice to buy energy from renewable sources.

“We have enough surplus right now,” Peffley said. “We’ll convert you in a few hours.”

Among the ratepayers visiting last week’s open house was Lansing City Councilman Brian Jackson, with his 1-year-old son, Elliott, on his shoulder.

Jackson said he was impressed overall by the level of expertise and professionalism at the open house, but he wondered whether some important information was being left out. He has been reading intensely about the climate crisis and is worried about the world Elliott will experience when he grows up.

Jackson cited the “1.5 Report,” the 2018 report delivered to the United Nations by the International Panel on Climate Change that lays out the devastating effects of a 1.5 degree rise in global temperature — a best-case scenario now widely considered barely within reach.

“It’s good that people’s input is welcome, but I’m concerned that if they don’t have information pertaining to the climate crisis, or the ‘1.5 Report,’ or the business-as-usual trajectory that we’re in — if they don’t have that knowledge, it makes it really hard for us to plan long term,” Jackson said.

Some visitors questioned the BWL’s shift from an open meeting format, with time set aside for ratepayers to comment publicly, to the open house format.

Randy Dykhuis, another member of the Lansing Environmental Action Team, agreed with Payne that the utility’s renewable goals are “way too low.”

He said the open house format worked better as a learning tool than as a feedback session.

“I learned a lot, but it was stage managed,” he said. “They present what they want us to see. Yes, they will take our comments on their computer survey, but will they use them?”

Brandie Ekren, the BWL’s director of strategic planning, said the format is more inclusive, not less.

“Some people like having the bigger audience where someone can get up and talk, but not everybody feels comfortable doing that,” Ekren said.

Peffley said that under the former style of meeting, “sometimes the person that’s a little more boisterous gets their question out, but a person sitting in the back doesn’t get any face time. I don’t want a few people, no matter what their views are, to drive the process.”

Ekren confirmed that many of the commenters that day were concerned that the utility’s clean energy timetable is not fast enough, in view of the urgent threat posed by climate change.

“One of the things we’re deciding on for this planning period is, how do we get to an even cleaner future?” Ekren said. “I don’t think it’s a question of whether it’s important.”

Backlit by a glowing screen full of graphs and pie charts, Paul Eory, a specialist in finance and enterprise risk management risk management at BWL, asked visitors for input he could use to tweak the IRP and model various energy scenarios.

“If they’re interested in different levels of renewable energy or energy efficiency, we want to hear that, so we can have that discussion of trade-offs,” Eory said.

A lot of variables go into modeling for the IRP, from energy demand to natural gas prices to the regulatory environment, but they are largely predictable, Eory said. But he added that one encouraging factor is changing faster than expected: “the cost declines for renewable technologies.”

After talking with BWL staffers, Jackson gave the utility the benefit of the doubt. “In their minds and in their hearts, they’re trying to work toward a renewable future,” Jackson said. “I just hope they improve. I’m making comments and hoping they improve.”

The IRP will be presented to the board of commissioners for approval in January 2020.

Public open houses Lansing Board of Water & Light Integrated Resource Portfolio (IRP)

4:30 to 7 p.m. Wed., Nov. 13

Delta Township District Library, Elmwood Room

5130 Davenport Dr., Lansing

4:30 to 7 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 14

Alfreda Schmidt Center Community Room

5825 Wise Road, Lansing

9 a.m. to noon Tues., Nov. 19

BWL REO Depot

1201 S. Washington Ave.

Or comment on-line at bit.ly/BWLIRP19

 

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