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City Council takes vote on Sims plant to brink

Alexander Sinn • Nov 6, 2018 at 9:00 AM

Taking a major decision on the future of the Sims power plant to the brink Monday, the Grand Haven City Council opted to postpone a vote that would have directed the Board of Light & Power to go against the latest independent recommendations.

The latest in a series of public disagreement between the BLP’s board and the City Council took place across two coinciding meetings.

The first of five public forums outlining the BLP’s future power generation was held at the Grand Haven Community Center at 6 p.m. Monday, overlapping with the City Council’s 7 p.m. meeting. Many in attendance at the forum, including the mayor and several members of council, headed from the Community Center to City Hall for the other meeting while public input was still being gathered.

The city’s agenda, released late last week, included a directive to close the Sims plant by the previously agreed-upon date of June 2020, but only if the BLP provides a clear path to generate the majority of the utility’s power in Grand Haven. That’s a proposition at odds with independent findings discussed at the forum.

The City Council resolution stated that if a majority of local energy generation could not be guaranteed by February 2019, steps would be immediately taken to keep the Sims plant in operation.

The initial findings of the independent consulting firm, Burns & McDonnell, recommend the long-discussed closing of the utility’s coal-burning plant, and emphasize diversifying the BLP’s energy portfolio with purchases off the grid, including renewable sources. The best paths presented to the public entailed little to no local generation, according to BLP General Manager Dave Walters.

Walters said the utility board requested the city remove the decision from council’s agenda. The council declined.

City Councilmen Bob Monetza and Josh Brugger voiced dissent on the resolution, and council agreed unanimously to postpone action until its next meeting.

The public forum was the first time council members had seen the Burns & McDonnell findings. A final report from the firm is not expected until December with the inclusion of public feedback.

“Apparently, we’re still not interested in listening to that kind of feedback,” Monetza said when the resolution was on the table. He called the agenda item “ill-timed.”

“This is an embarrassment,” he said. “Why is this on here?”

Brugger said he found the timeline proposed in the resolution “problematic,” and lamented the inability of BLP trustees and council members to conduct proper discussions. He accused both parties of “finger pointing.”

“I don’t know how unbelievably difficult it is for four people who live in the same city to sit down and have a flipping cup of coffee and talk about energy production,” Brugger said.

Mayor Geri McCaleb said the resolution on Monday’s agenda was there because council needed assurance from the BLP that steps would be taken to provide future local generation of power that would also power the city’s downtown snowmelt system.

“We’ve been talking about this for over a year without getting a commitment,” she said. “This is our way of getting a commitment.”

The mayor called the prospect of local renewable energy production a “pie in the sky.”

Local natural gas engines are among the options under consideration by the BLP. Representatives from Burns & McDonnell noted during the presentation at Monday’s forum that if local energy production is abandoned, it would become difficult to get a new plant up and running in the future.

By closing the Sims power generating station, the BLP is avoiding a plant overhaul that would require more than $35 million in repairs. Multiple studies have suggested purchasing the majority of energy is the most economical option for the local utility, leaving flexibility to pursue new technologies and agreements at competitive prices.

The council narrowly passed a resolution Monday night to enforce the City Charter in regards to the BLP’s purchases, which McCaleb said would bring more transparency to transactions made by the BLP. It was approved 3-2, with Brugger and Monetza voting it down.

Public forums regarding the future of the Sims plant continue this week: 

— Tuesday, Nov. 6: 7:30-9 a.m. at the BLP offices, 1700 Eaton Drive, Grand Haven (business forum); and 6-8 p.m. at the Trillium Catering and Event Center, 17246 Van Wagoner Road, Ferrysburg (community forum).

— Wednesday, Nov. 7: 1-2:30 p.m. at the BLP offices (business forum); and 6-8 p.m. in council’s chambers at Grand Haven City Hall, 519 Washington Ave. (community forum).  

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