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Board recommends Sims closure by 2020

Alex Doty • Apr 25, 2018 at 8:00 AM

The Grand Haven Board of Light & Power trustees voted 3-2 Tuesday to recommend to Grand Haven City Council the closure of the Sims power plant by June 1, 2020.

Trustees John Naser and James VanderMolen voted against the recommendation during the afternoon meeting at the Grand Haven Community Center.

BLP trustees also approved by a 4-1 vote the hiring of an independent consultant to perform an analysis of the plant in order to identify what needs to be done, as well as the costs, in shutting down the power plant. Naser voted against the proposal.

BLP officials have said that a minimum of $15 million needs to be invested into the facility to keep it running for another five years.

“We’re going to try and get to 2020 without making significant investments,” BLP General Manager David Walters said. “It’s a possibility this report could come back and say 2020 is not attainable.”

Walters said the goal is to get the review process started right away, and noted that the project could take 30-40 days.

“The idea is to get that to City Council as soon as we can,” he said.

The recommendation to close the Sims coal-fired power plant hasn’t been without its detractors on the utility’s board.

“I came on this board nine years ago, and the reason I came on ironically was to see if I could convince this board to move away from coal,” Naser said.

Naser noted that he wanted to slow down the process.

“We really need to think about what we are doing before we go ahead and do it,” he said.

Naser said one of his big concerns is the reliability of the power grid and the drawbacks of being dependent on outside sources for electricity.

“I’m very concerned with grid vulnerability,” he said, referencing cyber attacks and nuclear weapons. “If the grid goes down for a substantial period of time, guess what? Grand Haven has no power.”

Naser said he is also concerned about the City Council’s role in the process, noting that council should be the authority to select the independent firm to evaluate the condition of the plant, not the BLP.

“This decision should be made by the people who are going to make the final decision to shut down Sims,” he said. “It should be up to them, not us.”

VanderMolen also expressed his concern with the proposal, and wanted to see the utility make the needed fixes at Sims. He cited community growth as a reason for making the investments in a local power plant.

“It doesn’t have to be done all at once,” VanderMolen said. “It could be done over 3-4 years. ... We won’t need to depend on other people to provide power for the system.”

Board Chairman Jack Smant defended the board’s process and Tuesday’s decision, noting that City Council will be involved in the process.

“I see, as a responsibility of this board, we’re the ones who should make an initial recommendation,” he said. “They (City Council) get to review it and say yes or no.”

Trustee Gerald Witherell also voiced support for the recommendation.

“We were aware in 2011 that Sims was becoming a load stone on the shoulders of this community,” he said. “Bottom line is, we’re out of time.”

Eight reasons

The report being sent to City Council for consideration cites eight reasons why the Sims plant should be closed:

— Sims is no longer the most economical source of power.

— Sims does not affect BLP customer reliability.

— The plant is small compared to other coal facilities, but is oversized for the community’s needs.

— The facility can’t operate beyond 2020 without incurring substantial additional expense.

— The risks and cost of continued operations outweigh the benefits of continuing to run the plant.

— The closure plan is consistent with consumer sentiment.

— Environmental compliance costs may be avoided by announcing a June 2020 shutdown date.

— The BLP will continue to meet the expectations of customers and provide value without operating beyond 2020.

BLP administrators announced their intentions to close Sims during a Feb. 14 board meeting.

The utility’s staff has since hosted several meetings with local industry customers. The first meeting was held with the top 10 customers that represent 50 percent of the utility’s business, and the most-recent meeting involved the next 5 percent of the power users.

If it’s decided to close the plant, the staff would optimize Sims to extend its life to 2020. This optimization would include longer shutdown periods in the fall and spring, and the plant would run at reduced workloads.

Work would continue on a multi-year project to complete upgrades to the transmission system infrastructure by fall 2019, allowing the BLP to adequately obtain enough power from the grid in 2020.

Last year, the utility spent about $2 million to upgrade the lines from a substation near Robbins Road, down Ferry Street and back to Harbor Island. Officials say the new transmission lines can handle roughly three times more load than the old ones. Many of the existing lines were erected in the 1960s.

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