Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 15, 2010

Light & Power's future will start with voters


---- — For more than five years Traverse City Light & Power officials flirted with the idea of building one or more wood-burning biomass power-generation plants to help break away from the utility's long reliance on coal-burning power plants.

Just last week, though, the utility approved a five-year, $40 million energy-supply contract with the Lansing Board of Water & Light, a Lansing-based public utility. The new contract will secure about 50 percent of the electricity Light & Power will provide to area residents over the five-year span.

For the first time in a long time, Light & Power isn't actively looking at local generation options. Those efforts wisely have been put on hold until November, when city voters will decide two issues that could change the landscape for Light & Power.

One would return city-owned Light & Power to complete control by the city commission and make it just another city department. Currently, the utility operates mostly independently of the city. Its board is named by the city commission, and two city commissioners sit on the board, but it has its own staff and makes its own decisions.

The second would give city residents the right to request a vote on construction of any new power-generation facility. The city commission has the final say on issuing bonds to build something like a power plant, but the decision to do so would be up to Light & Power.

Both issues were put on the ballot through voter petition drives sparked by Light & Power's efforts over the last year to build a $30 million biomass plant. Former Mayor Margaret Dodd accused Light & Power of ignoring citizen input on the biomass issue and led the petition drives.

As things sit now, in fact, Light & Power has zero generation plans. When the utility decided earlier this year to scrap its biomass plan, it also nixed its plans to produce 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and its formal goal of establishing a local generation facility.

While that's understandable, given the widespread opposition the biomass plan generated and the November ballots, other issues won't simply go away. Light & Power Director Ed Rice has said the Lansing plant is expected to shut down eventually, and many in the city don't want to continue to support coal-burning plants and the pollution they create.

Light & Power likely can meet a state mandate of producing 10 percent of the power it sells from renewable sources by 2020, mostly through wind power.

Signing the contract with the Lansing Board of Water & Light just underscores that the utility has a long way to go, and the way ahead is hardly clear.