Holland weighs energy choice; other cities at similar crossroad

by Michael Gerstein

Holland is looking toward a natural gas plant, like this one in California, to power the city. Critics fear the gas will come from hydro-fracking. Photo: Mollivan Jon (flickr)

The city of Holland is looking to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels after years of litigation over a failed multimillion dollar proposal to expand its coal plant.

But environmentalists worry about a city council vote looming Nov. 28th that could result in a new natural gas plant for this Lake Michigan community.

The city recently approved two contracts with wind farms to meet  Michigan’s 2015 deadline for 10 percent clean energy. But the city’s base power needs remain a daunting problem for officials trying to address growing energy demands and an aging coal plant.

Holland hired a global energy consultant to come up with a solution, and the company reported natural gas as the city’s best option.

Critics worry that the $40 million to $60 million plant would be supplied with natural gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing, and that its steep cost would mean fewer resources for renewable energy projects.

Hydro-fracking—a method used to fish out deep pockets of natural gas—has drawn staunc criticism from environmentalists who say it threatens  the environment and human health.

“It’s strange, because things are working on two separate tracks,” said Jan O’Connell, Michigan energy issues organizer for the Sierra Club. “Because for over two years now, Holland has a sustainability committee, and they’ve been pushing an energy plan, looking for renewable, looking for energy efficiency, and looking for an option other than building the coal plant.

“They’ve been moving on this separate track and all the sudden, come August…they switched to the gas plan. And they just sped up this process like crazy fast—trying to build this gas plant without taking the energy plan into consideration.”

Susan Harley, from Clean Water Action, a million member grassroots environmental group, wonders why officials aren’t pushing for more clean energy.

“I’m still concerned that the city has not adequately looked at energy efficiency and renewable energy as far as their choices,” she said.

Working with Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club released a report last year detailing the environmental concerns associated with fracking.

They reported that chemicals involved in the process could pollute fresh water supplies, divert water from local watersheds, increase air pollution and even cause seismic disruption—though it said more research is necessary to verify these claims.

Chemicals involved in the process aren’t currently available for public disclosure, making that research difficult.

That’s why the two groups are asking Gov. Rick Snyder to mandate disclosure and require more stringent environmental regulation for the natural gas industry. Snyder has taken no such action.

In the meantime the Sierra Club is urging the city not to go through with building the gas plant.

But Holland is growing.

And while at the forefront of environmentalists’ minds, hydraulic fracturing is a more distant problem for city officials.

Dan Nally, business services director for the Holland utility, said it’s simply not feasible to meet Holland’s energy needs without the use of fossil fuels.

“The Sierra club has some very strong ideas on their belief system and they generally don’t want any fossil fuels used,” he

There are environmental concerns with hydraulic fracturing. Photo: Chiot’s Run (flickr)

said. “But unfortunately for them – unfortunately for all of us- the technology does not exist today to walk away from all fossil fuels.

“We’ve got to be able to provide power 24/7 365. And that’s what some people miss in their dogmatic approach to their view of life, and I wish there was some more common sense applied at times.”

Holland’s problems are by no means unique. Many groups feel the Great Lakes region is at a turning point, with opposing interests clamoring for public support of moving toward cleaner energy or expanding natural gas extraction.

Recently Michigan voters rejected proposal 3, a constitutional amendment to increase the use of renewable energy. Supporters recently released a poll indicating that voters support renewables but rejected the proposal because it amended the constitution.

Glenn Paulson, a top official with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, remains optimistic about an EPA report on fracking to come out by the end of the year, according to a recent Associated Press report in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Mandated by Congress in 2010, the report takes an in-depth look at potential damage fracking could cause. According to Bloomberg, some experts like Dan Alfaro, spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth, believe the EPA will find current natural gas extraction methods healthy.

The EPA says that natural gas plays a key role in America’s clean energy future, but is still concerned over potential impact to human health and the environment.

Environmentalists like Harley and O’Connell aren’t so sure.

They worry that Holland will inadvertently support the fracking industry if the city’s gas plant is approved, and are rallying to garner greater community opposition.

Nally said the city has no control over how suppliers get their product.

O’Connel’s biggest concern is that the city overlooked the potential of renewable energy sources like wind.

“To me,” she said, “the sky is the limit in terms of energy efficiency and renewable.”

  • Shirley

    Natural gas, like coal and oil, is a fossil fuel and therefore exhaustible. It is temporarily cheap, because there is a glut in the market, supply having suddenly overtaken demand due to the implementation of new, highly destructive (and productive) technologies. It is uncertain at this point, given the new extractive practice employed, that natural gas actually delivers a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. A full cycle analysis has yet to be completed, but experiences elsewhere — including Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — indicate very significant increases in methane to the air in gas hydrofracking areas. Hydraulic fracturing is still a huge experiment where we humans are the guinea pigs, enormous risks are imposed on the health of land, air and water, and the industry seems to have nothing to lose. They can afford to pace extraction while building, through public relations, marketing and lobbying, a demand that will bring natural gas prices back to profitability — for them. Holland is to the industry no more than a potential market. And the threat of unreliable supply if the city moves heavily in the direction of renewables is a weak one, given the connection to the large regional grid which is more than capable of meeting intermittent need due to using wind and solar. Predictability is far more significant than is intermittancy, and predictability — and flexibility — are within our means. We don’t have to quit cold turkey on fossil fuels, but it is short-sighted and imprudent, given what we know about renewable energy technologies today, to sink investment into natural gas infrastructure that will commit ratepayers to its use for decades.

  • Capt. Bill

    It seems to me that the opponents of natural gas are not looking at what is best of the majority of people living in the great lakes region. Who needs a little help with the cost of heating and lighting their homes. Wind and other forms of alternative energy are fine but at the present time they are unaffordable for the average taxpaying homeowner.
    Capt. Bill VanWormer
    390 Valley road
    Pulaski, New York

  • Harold

    Clearly, natural gas will play a role in meeting our energy needs, but we need to diversify our energy sources and we need to move away from fossil fuels which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A big part of the problem is simply the way that industry has framed our situation. We do not “produce” coal, oil or natural gas–we “extract” it, never being able to have it again. It’s this type of word play which has exacerbated our problems in dealing with energy. It fosters a mindset that we can just make more–when, in fact, the more quickly we use these ancient resources, the less will be available for future generations, if any. And the root of our energy problems can be summarized using basic math: if we had half the population, our fossil fuels would last twice as long.

  • Ron

    Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty old coal plants, and dangerous expensive nuclear plants. It will fuel cars, vans, buses, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, air conditioners, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. It is used to make many products. It lowers CO2 emissions. Over 2,900 natural gas story links on my blog. An annotated bibliography of live links, updated daily. The big picture of natural gas.
    ronwagnersrants . blogspot. com

  • Harold

    The first two paragraphs imply that natural gas is not a fossil fuel. That is not the case–unless you happen to be one of those Republicans who believe that natural gas magically appeared 9,000 years ago, alongside the dinosaurs.