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Pulling the plug on renewable energy

Council appears posed to derail mayor’s green plan for city-owned facilities

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Lansing Mayor Andy Schor’s plan to power every city-owned building with renewable energy is headed toward rejection as most of the City Council looks to shift the proposed investment elsewhere to other city functions.

“We are hearing about other ways we could spend that money,” explained Council President Carol Wood. “Many have talked about additional police officers, firefighters and code officers. Those are all big-ticket items. We have to look at our priorities. We have to look at what the public believes is a necessity. It’s their money.”

Schor called a press conference last month to announce plans to make Lansing the first city in Michigan to be fueled entirely by renewable energy sources by the summer. The concept: tap into the Board of Water & Light’s GreenWise energy program, pay an extra $284,300 annually starting with the new budget on July 1 and power 187 facilities with cleaner energy.

Those “necessary first steps” to curb climate change, Schor explained, would require $100,000 from the city’s general fund. The rest would come from existing departmental budgets. The 9.7% overall cost increase — to $3.21 million annually — was worth the price to help reduce Lansing’s environmental footprint, Schor said.

But most of the Council disagrees. The plan doesn’t actually call for the creation of any additional renewable energy. Instead, it taps into BWL’s existing renewable energy reserves — most of which are purchased in the form of credits from partnering energy generation companies, bought and resold on the open market.

While BWL General Manager Dick Peffley suggested the shift would indirectly build demand for additional cleaner energy sources, the city’s investment — at least for now — would still head back to companies such as Granger Electric and Excelon Generation as BWL continues to expand plans to generate additional renewable energy.

“It doesn’t increase the city’s energy usage or do anything to generate more renewable energy,” said 4th Ward Councilman Brian Jackson. “We’re buying credits that are going toward some other company. I don’t think it’s a good use of our money at all. I think we should spend it wisely on something that might actually make a real difference.”

State reports show the BWL purchases 99.9% of its renewable energy and generates only a few million watts of its own electrical energy at solar arrays along Cedar Street and in REO Town. The rest — as is typical in the energy business — comes from purchased energy credits. At the BWL, most of that energy comes from a Granger landfill.

Experts noted landfill gas isn’t the cleanest energy on the market but technically qualifies as a renewable source. And as long as that methane is piling up in local landfills, cities might as well try to use the energy. But at least six Council members, including At-large member Kathie Dunbar, think taxpayer dollars could be put to better use.

“We need to dedicate that money to other green initiatives,” Dunbar contended.

Dunbar and Jackson suggested the city could instead hire a “sustainability manager” to oversee a more comprehensive plan to reduce Lansing’s environmental footprint. The Council recently allocated $14,000 for an upcoming environmental assessment. Dunbar doesn’t want to see those results shelved when the study ends.

“It’s a huge undertaking for $14,000,” Dunbar said. “I have always advocated that we need to create a sustainability manager, like we have a communications manager — a liaison with all departments. That person will be far more effective at implementing a plan if they can participate when the plan is created.”

Wood, Jody Washington, 1st Ward; Adam Hussain, 3rd Ward; and Jeremy Garza, 2nd Ward, would like to see the money diverted to other uses.

“We have shortages in police and fire,” Washington said. “We still have huge problems with our roads. That money could do a lot for the city. We went down to bare bones out of necessity but it’s time to go back to the meat and potatoes of what our city and its residents need. I do care about the environment, and it’s all great publicity, but at the end of the day, we should be looking at the impact these dollars can have on our city.”

Added Garza: “I’ve been pushing for another community police officer — particularly in my ward. That’s $280,000 more being spent and that’s a lot of money that could be going to other priorities in the city.”

Hussain said he was also “leaning toward” a budget amendment that would better focus on “critical services.”

Citing what he called “drastic cuts” to “critical positions and services” in previous budgets, Hussain added, “As we continue to see increases in general fund revenues, every dollar should be spent wisely. We need to build back our capacity to provide for a safe and vibrant community.”

At-large member Patricia Spitzley was undecided. Vice President Peter Spadafore also remained on the fence, but he said he would be willing to explore any “alternative way those dollars can be utilized to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions for the city.”.

Lansing wouldn’t be the first city in Michigan to reject a plan similar to BWL’s GreenWise program. Elected officials in Traverse City — with a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2020 — could have paid an extra $56,000 annually to power its facilities. They ultimately passed on the deal for loftier (and arguably greener) ambitions that Traverse City Light & Power Director Tim Arends said would make “an actual impact.”

Facing a May 20 deadline for the Council to act on his proposed budget, Schor stood firmly behind his proposal despite the recent criticism from the Council. Lansing is already working on a climate action plan and plans to audit its energy consumption. This year’s budget proposal also calls for equipment improvements and the hiring of more police and code enforcement officers.

“If there is somewhere else we can make an environmental impact with these dollars, I haven’t heard a proposal,” Schor said. “It’s important for Lansing to lead by purchasing 100% renewable energy.”

Added Peffley: “This really is only one piece to the puzzle. You have to do the whole thing. Look at energy efficiencies. Look at reducing the usage, but consider this too: If the city doesn’t act on this, we will not be under as much pressure to bring in our next solar array our next wind project. We want to be able to provide more.”

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