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'It is an asset to the city'

Alex Doty • Jun 11, 2018 at 2:00 PM

With a goal in mind to close the Sims III power plant by June 2020, local elected officials and stakeholders in Grand Haven’s downtown say they’re concerned with how the transition could affect the business district’s snowmelt system.

“I’m not an engineer and they may be totally right (about closing Sims),” Sharon Behm, chairwoman of the Grand Haven Main Street Downtown Development Authority, said regarding the recommendation from the Board of Light & Power’s trustees. “But there are things that need to be taken care of.”

The Grand Haven Main Street Board recently passed a resolution that asked the City Council to ensure, as a condition of any decommissioning and/or diminished use of the coal-fired power plant that the city safeguard, guarantee and protect the investment in the snowmelt system in order to allow it to continue uninterrupted for the benefit of the residents of the city and the region.

“It is an asset to the city of Grand Haven and to people from all around the Tri-Cities who use it,” Behm said.

The snowmelt system was installed during the downtown reconstruction project nearly eight years ago. It uses hot water from the BLP’s J.B. Sims Generating Station on Harbor Island. The hot water is piped beneath the Grand River to the downtown and back to the power plant, and is the result of the plant’s power generation process. 

In the event of a plant outage or when the Sims plant is offline, the BLP relies on an auxiliary gas-fired boiler to keep the water heated and running through the system.

The system is designed to melt snow faster on the sidewalks than in the street, as snowmelt tubes in the street are lower and less densely packed, so snow won’t immediately disappear when hitting the surface.

Behm noted that had they known back in the planning stages that the Sims plant wouldn’t be around much longer, the snowmelt system likely wouldn’t have been installed, or alternative heat sources would have been looked at to power it, such as gas-fired boilers.

The Grand Haven snowmelt system was also designed in such a way as to be able to expand capacity out to U.S. 31 if the community ever wanted to enlarge the system.

“We put an additional $1 million into that pipe to handle capacity all the way to the highway,” Behm said. “Right now, we’re just hoping we can keep the first three blocks.” 

Behm said she hopes there is more open communication with the municipal utility’s Board of Trustees regarding the future of the system and identifying a way for it to remain in place in the future.

Mayor Geri McCaleb said she is also concerned about the timing of the Sims closure and how it would impact services like snowmelt. She said two years isn’t long enough for major decisions to be made about the future of the system.

“We’ve seen over the years that the auxiliary boiler, when it’s working at its best, does not work as well as the power plant does to keep the sidewalk and streets clear,” McCaleb said. “It’s more expensive to run, and this past spring when it had its own mechanical issues, it didn’t melt snow. It only provided enough heat to keep the system from being destroyed.”

McCaleb said she is also concerned with the planned operating schedule of the Sims plant, which will be down in March and November — both times when there can be snow on the ground.

“I sure hope that auxiliary boiler is working better than it was this spring when we had snow and we had to go down there with salt to melt the ice off the street,” she said. “... I hope that we can get a plan together and we can sit down and talk about this.”

BLP officials note that the Board of Trustees has committed to helping the city resolve the snowmelt issue, but say there is no snowmelt issue to resolve if the Sims plant closure is not approved by the City Council.

“We do know that even if the plant life is extended for a year or two, the snowmelt issue doesn’t go away — it is just postponed a few years,” BLP spokeswoman Renee Molyneux said. “And two years is more than adequate time to address an alternate heat source for that system. Additionally, the board expressed its willingness and desire to meet with, discuss and assist the City Council in its review of the board’s decision to cease operations effective June 1, 2020, in their April 26, 2018, letter to the mayor and City Council.”

However, Molyneux noted that the first issue that must be addressed and finalized before all other ancillary items is when the plant will be closed.

The full “Board Approved Sims Power Plant Closure Report” may be found online at the utility’s website, ghblp.org.

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