Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 21, 2013

Editorial: Utility must decide if it's a power producer

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — As so often seems to be the case with Traverse City Light & Power, a debate over where to build an electrical substation off LaFranier Road is all about asking the wrong question.

Instead of haggling over the merits of a site near South Airport Road or a 30-acre parcel near Hammond Road for a substation, what the utility really needs to be talking about — to ratepayers, city residents and the city commission — are possible plans for a power generating plant at the 30-acre site near Hammond.

That’s the answer-first question here. The issue of where to build a substation is secondary to any proposal to build a power generation plant; until there is some consensus about whether to build one, what type of plant to build and where to build it, everything else is moot.

A few years ago Light & Power badly fumbled an effort to build a biomass plant that would have burned huge amounts of wood and other bio fuels. The utility did a poor job of explaining the idea to the public, particularly how much ash and other particulates the plant would create and how ash and other waste would be handled.

A nail in the coffin came when the federal government said a site chosen by Light & Power near Cherry Capital Airport was out because it would interfere with flight plans. The public rightly thought that if L&P had flubbed something as basic as siting the plant, the rest of its sell job was probably suspect, too.

Now, the utility has referred to the LaFranier site as a possible location for a power plant a few times but has never said what kind of plant that might be. Given the area’s experience with the biomass effort, conversations about a power plant have to be specific, detailed and serious. A first decision must be to determine if L&P really wants to be in the power generation business at all. Deciding on a type of plant and a site that wouldn’t jeopardize the region’s environment must top the agenda.

If the Light & Power board thinks the utility should be producing power, it should say so right now and start the conversation. The public won’t tolerate another biomass sales job. City residents and ratepayers want to be in on the ground floor this time.

If there are plans, explain them. If it’s just a concept, get some feedback. But most of all, keep this a community conversation from the start.