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MONDAY, April 8 — Lansing aims to be the first city in Michigan fueled entirely by renewable energy sources by the summer. But other cities have had that goal for years. How is Lansing so far ahead of the curve?
“It’s all about the money,” explained Dick Peffley, general manager at the Lansing Board of Water & Light.
Mayor Andy Schor announced plans to switch over Lansing’s 187 city-owned facilities to cleaner energy sources by July 1, driving up the city’s electric bill by 9.7% to $3.21 million annually, according to a City Pulse analysis of data shared by Peffley. That marks a $284,300 jump over the rate that was paid last year, Peffley said.
It’s an investment that other cities haven’t been willing to make, Peffley suggested.
Schor said the premium is worth the price as he looks for Lansing to take “necessary first steps” to curb climate change. The added costs could take $100,000 from the city’s general fund starting July 1. The rest would come from existing departmental utility budgets. Th City Council still needs to approve the mayor’s proposed budget.
The Michigan Climate Action Network lists more than 20 U.S. cities with commitments to switch over to all renewable energy supplies, including Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Traverse City. None have yet to hit that mark despite their long-term goals — some years in the making. So how come Lansing may be able to pull it off so quickly?
Peffley pointed to a willingness to invest in a greener future. But it essentially boils down to some bookkeeping.
The mayor’s plan doesn’t call for the creation of any additional renewable energy. It will only tap into BWL’s existing renewable energy reserves — absorbing about 15% of its total renewable energy portfolio, assuming the city’s average usage rates remain steady into 2019. And most of it will come from a local landfill.
But hold the criticism: Energy experts suggested Lansing’s switch to renewable energy will only build on demand for other cleaner energy sources. And while most of the cash will indirectly head back to companies like Granger Electric and Excelon Generation, the costs could decline as BWL’s portfolio expands.
“Lansing is sending a signal,” said John Freeman, director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association. “As a government getting on board with embracing renewable energy, that has tremendous ramifications. Cities, unlike businesses and people, are here forever. Governments are a fixture. That demand will drive investment.”
BWL purchases 99.9% of its renewable energy in credits, generating only a few million watts of electrical energy at its solar arrays along Cedar Street and in REO Town. The rest — as is typical in the energy business — comes almost exclusively from partnering energy generation companies, bought and resold on the open market.
About 60% of that energy in Lansing is pumped from landfill gas, primarily from Granger’s station on Wood Road, according to BWL’s most recent annual report. Another 38% comes from an Excelon wind turbine project along US-127 in Ithaca. The remainder is purchased from a hydroelectric plant near Cheboygan.
Experts noted landfill gas isn’t necessarily the cleanest form of renewable energy, but it technically qualifies. Trash, after all, is renewable. Residents can foreseeably dump their garbage into landfills for generations to come. And as long as that methane gas is piling up inside, cities might as well try to turn it into energy in the process.
“It’s a tough one,” Freeman added. “Methane from landfills is considered renewable energy in the same way that anything generated by a municipal incinerator is considered renewable. Ideally, you recycle as much as you can but the rest ends up in a landfill. As a result, methane gas is generated. What else do you do with it? Capture it.”
Peffley recognizes that methane energy creates far more emissions than solar or wind-energy, and he also noted the BWL plans to eventually reduce landfill gas to 2-3% of its overall renewable portfolio. But is it renewable? And does it help to curb the growing impacts of climate change? “Absolutely,” Peffley insists.
“My understanding of landfill gas is that it would actually be much more toxic if that methane was just released into the air instead of being used for electricity,” added Tim Arends, executive director of the Traverse City Light & Power. “It obviously emits something into the atmosphere, but these landfills are going to do that anyway.”
Greenpeace reports natural gas, when burned, emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels. But methane — when released into the atmosphere — is 86 to 105 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at disrupting the climate over a 20-year period. Other “studies” that have been conducted, however, also claim to contradict those claims.
But other cities across Michigan have access to plenty of renewable energy too. What’s holding them back?
Arends said officials in Traverse City — with a goal for 100% renewable energy by 2020 — could’ve paid an extra $56,000 annually to power the city through a program similar to that of BWL. The rate was actually a half-cent cheaper than what the city of Lansing was charged. But they passed on the idea for loftier ambitions.
“They want to make a statement. They want to make an actual impact,” Arends explained. “They want to create an actual project that creates renewable energy and displaces those various, non-renewable sources off the grid.”
A committee in Traverse City plans to follow Lansing to meet the same goal in 2020 — but only by expanding on the existing supply of renewable energy in the region. Arends lauds Lansing for its recent steps, but said he carries a preference geared more toward broadening the overall renewable portfolio; Not just using what’s there.
Peffley has a similar mindset. He said renewable energy will account for 30% of BWL’s supplies by 2030. It’s a work in progress. Currently, only 12.5% of BWL’s electricity is generated from renewable sources.
Another environmentally focused capital city — Madison, Wisconsin — is reportedly taking its own steps to combat climate change as well. A recent initiative would require $95 million in upfront investments, promising to dramatically reduce emissions and deliver a substantial savings over time, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.
Those plans also include 100% renewable energy, but they also look to tackle carbon emissions by using more energy-efficient buildings, in-house solar power and electric-powered public transportation. Solar panels would be installed on city facilities. City investments — over the next 12 years — would also be made in wind farms.
“The Lansing Board of Water & Light is also municipal,” Freeman added. “It might be easier for them to make decisions or to work with the city rather than Consumers Energy or DTE, only in the sense they don’t have that extra element of Wall Street involved with stockholders. They’re accountable to the local residents instead.”
Editor's note: This story was corrected to accurately reflect the title of John Freeman, executive director at the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association.
City of Lansing’s Annual Electricity Costs
Current — $2.93 million
Proposed — $3.21 million
2020 Forecast — $2.89 million
Renewable Energy at BWL
Cedar Street Solar Facility — 0.03%
Cedar Street Solar Expansion — 0.08%
REO Town Solar Facility — 0.01%
Tower Kleber Hydro Plan - 4.76%
Granger Electric Company - 57.42%
Excelon Generation Company - 37.70%
Source: Lansing Board of Water & Light