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Going Local’s Good for Utilities, TooPrint

Clean Energy | March 16, 2010 | By Brian Beauchamp

Traverse City Light & Power is still accepting comments from the public at its Web site about how best to achieve its 30 percent renewables goal.

There’s been a lot of controversy recently in Traverse City about whether the local electric utility, Traverse City Light & Power, should build a wood-burning biomass plant as part of its plan to make 30 percent of its electricity using renewable sources.

Of course, nobody wants to be subject to spewing smokestack emissions or watch helplessly as our recovering northern Michigan forests are cut down once again.

But the rallying cries against biomass have sometimes been arguably over the top, making TCL&P out to be a villain trying to force a decision on the community.

This is the first time I’ve lived in a community with its own, city-operated utility.  In southern Michigan, where I’m from, the big guys, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, call the shots, and exert tremendous power at the state capital in Lansing.

But here I find that the local utility is right down the street, a phone call away, and always reachable.  The board meetings are open to the public; the city commission adopts the utility’s budget; and it is possible to have a good deal of public accountability and oversight.

In late February, TCLP hosted two public forums asking for input on their plans for 30 percent renewables by 2020-a bold goal, given that Michigan law only calls for 10 percent by 2015.  At the rate things move in our state, it will be surprising if the major utilities meet the state goal, even as TCL&P reaches far beyond it.

Then, last week, TCL&P released its first-ever Integrated Resource Plan (IRP).  State law does not requiremunicipal utilities to do an IRP, but the company commissioned the study a year ago anyway. It can be used to inform a public planning process that evaluates the many different options a utility has for meeting future electricity demands.

In TCL&P’s case, the plan attempts to identify the optimal mix of resources that minimizes the cost of electricity supply while meeting reliability needs.

This document is hot off the press, and it’s long-138 pages full of graphs, charts, and data forecasting how and where TCL&P can get electrons onto the grid to service its customer base.

As TCL&P works on finalizing a plan on how to use more renewables, we’ll all have our own thoughts about what TCL&P’s IRP says and what we would like it to say.

Now, TCL&P isn’t perfect, and neither is the public system for governing it. But people who have a municipally owned utility have a much better chance of affecting their policies and decision than do customers of the big companies-or of co-operatively owned utilities, for that matter.

So, the local discussion on how our local electric utility can best reach its admirable goal is real, and people have the power to influence it.

I know I’m looking forward to putting my shoulder behind making northwest Michigan a state leader on renewable energy.  How ’bout you?

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