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A Closer Look at Our 20-20 VisionPrint

Clean Energy | April 2, 2010 | By Brian Beauchamp

Traverse City Light & Power’s coal-burning power plant once blocked views of Grand Traverse Bay. But the municipal utility tore it down, and is striving to become a national renewable energy leader.

Tuesday night, the Michigan Land Use Institute and Michigan Energy Alternatives Project presented a proposal to Traverse City Light & Power’s board that largely supports the bold renewable energy goal the company is contemplating, but calls for expanding it, too.

Our proposal, dubbed 20-20 by 2020: A Clear Vision for Clean-Energy Prosperity, applauds the local utility’s aggressive goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2020. But we call for much stronger energy efficiency efforts, more wind power, inclusion of solar power, and promotion of local energy entrepreneurship, particularly among our region’s schools, community investment groups, and private concerns.

The “20-20″ part of the title means a 20 percent reduction in energy demand from business as usual, and meeting 20 percent of demand with renewable solar, wind, and landfill gas-powered electric generation by 2020.

While board and staff at TCL&P expressed interest Tuesday night, they also showed some skepticism and asked some good questions, which we’re working to answer.

20-20 also addresses something that’s occupied the board and staff for several months: controversy about whether or not the company should construct a biomass plant to supply a good chunk of the renewable energy contained in its goal.

The report says that strong efficiency measures and increased solar, wind, and landfill gas-and, possibly, non-renewable but lower-carbon natural gas generation-could cut or eliminate the need to burn renewable biomass fuel. But the report does accept biomass, albeit under strict criteria that includes sustainable harvesting of wood and community support.

Now, reaching 20 percent energy efficiency in 10 years is a real challenge. The good news is that there are ways to make it happen: proper incentive, investment, and financing programs, and including the community in the planning and policy-making process are crucial. Thinking creatively and out of the box about outreach is a necessity.

That’s because even if TCL&P provides all the necessary financial incentives, it won’t amount to much unless businesses and homeowners also decide that they want to lower the amount of electricity they use.  Groups like MLUI, SEEDS, and the Watershed Center have expressed an interest in working together with TCL&P to help make this happen.

The good news is that many citizens have expressed interest in energy savings-the savings needed to offset at least some of the demand for base load the utility must meet in new ways as several power supply contracts wind down.

That other side of the coin-power supply-is also ripe for innovation-and the report calls for a big one-feed-in tariffs, of FITs. The tariffs would allow TCL&P to pay fair, profitable rates for power provided by people or organizations that invest in wind turbines or solar panels and feed their power into TCL&P’s grid.

20-20’s call for a FITs program would catalyze wind and solar development in the region, and, again, make Traverse City a leader.

The approach has, generally speaking, worked quite well in European. Among other things, the tariffs made Germany a world leader in both solar panel deployment and manufacture. The approach is spreading in the U.S.-and garnering extraordinarily strong customer interest wherever it’s rolled out.

On April 7, TCL&P will be host a third and final forum about its renewable energy plan; the utility will summarize the public input it received at two previous forums, held in February. It’s your chance to come out and show your support for clean, renewable energy in Traverse City.

So, please check out our report, and then let company officials know what you think.

Brian Beauchamp is a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at brian@mlui.org.