The Power of BWL
Replacing traditional light bulbs with Compact Florescent (CF) bulbs is an effective, easy way to reduce personal energy consumption. But in the grand scheme of energy reduction, light bulbs are small bites of a very big apple. It’s like a 240 pound person trying to lose 100 pounds by substituting in just one salad a week.
If Michigan hopes to tackle big energy issues, like aging power plants and concerns about climate change, then our big systems as well as our individual actions need to change. In Lansing’s case, the light bulb can be traced back to the Lansing Board of Water & Light
The BWL’s has done lots of the little “green” stuff. It donated high-efficiency LED bulbs for the holiday tree lighting at the State Capitol, handed CF light bulbs out to citizens, and left little notes next to office light switches reminding employees to “turn off the lights.”
Now, bigger commitments to wind, solar and biomass-based energy, are helping the utility green the bigger system and expand its use alternative energy sources.Lighting the Future
“We are the only utility in the State of Michigan with a plan to reduce our carbon footprint, and we’re quite proud of that,” says general manager of the BWL, Peter Lark. “We’re the only utility in the state that’s promised to meet all new load with either renewable sources or energy efficiency.”
The BWL set a goal
to deliver a portion of its electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar—often called a Renewable Portfolio Standard
—even before the governor signed a statewide RPS
“One of the prime reasons that I opted to come to the BWL was because the board had just created a renewable energy portfolio standard,” Lark says.
The BWL set a goal of having 7 percent of its total electricity needs come from renewable sources by 2016. The state’s new law requires 10 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2015.
The BWL’s renewable energy portfolio just expanded by 432 solar panels
being built behind the Stadium District
in Downtown Lansing
. Expected to be the state’s largest solar field, the BWL’s Cedar Street Solar Array will power 50 homes.
“Availability is a very critical aspect,” Lark says about solar power. “Some say that the sun’s not that available in Michigan, but I beg to differ. I’m very upbeat on the solar panels we’re using. They’re very unusual in that they don’t take a lot of direct sunlight. They’ll absorb indirect light as well so it doesn’t have to be bright and sunny.”
Lark says solar is an effective renewable energy for the BWL because it’s available when the BWL needs it most—during peak, use from noon until 8 p.m. in the summer, when the panels will run at about 80 percent. During Michigan’s long winters, the panels are only available about 20 percent of the time, but that’s okay, because winter electricity consumption isn’t as high as in the summer.
The BWL also recently put out a request for proposal to add two, 20 to 50-foot tall, vertical wind machines to the solar field and the new chiller plant. Lark expects these will also contribute renewable power to the grid, and run at about 20 to 25 percent during peak times.
“They’ll be very noticeable, but in terms of wind generation, they’re not going to be big,” Lark says. Using Gassy Grass
The thought of human waste, trash and agricultural waste fueling a plasma TV is slightly disturbing, but it’s the wave of BWL’s future. The BWL and Granger
recently brought a facility online to convert landfill gases to energy
and put it on the energy grid. The conversion is currently fueling about 6,000 homes, and will jump to 10,000 in 2009 and 15,000 in 2012.
“We’re not only taking the carbon out of the atmosphere, we’re also taking care of methane, which is 20 to 25 times more potent than carbon,” Lark says. “The second greatest thing about this contract is that landfill gases are a very, very reliable renewable energy resource.”
The BWL is also experimenting with powering steam units with biomass. The BWL is actively experimenting and is gearing up to test corn-based biomass in its electric generating plants. They also want to test waste sludge as a fuel source, but can’t find a supplier who can provide them with this material in its proper form.
“While this biomass is a great thing and we love it and want to do it, it’s important to us at this point, that we’re absolutely sure that the fuel will be there,” Lark says. “What we’re trying to do is hit everything that’s renewable that we’re aware of.”
Lark’s also working with an advisory group to determine exactly how to incorporate more alternative energy sources into a new coal-fired power plant, proposed to be built in 2018 at a likely cost of $750 million to $1 billion. The citizen’s advisory board includes a host of local leaders, including Paula Cunningham, president of Capitol National Bank
, local developer Pat Gillespie, and Joan Nelson with the Allen Neighborhood Center
“We’re not far enough down the line where I can tell you how much this (adding renewables) will cost, but I can tell you it will cost more,” Lark says.Is the Customer Always Right?
Despite the state’s step toward supporting alternative energy sources, the BWL can’t get too green unless customers agree to pay for it.
“It would appear that the customers are very bullish with renewables,” Lark says. “It would appear that they’re willing to spend extra money to procure renewables.”
But just how bullish are they? Lark doesn’t know, so the BWL is surveying customers, asking them how much they would pay for additional renewables.
“How interested are customers in paying for green steam? I don’t know the answer to that,” Lark says.
Part of the reason is because Lark can’t give them an exact price tag for each of these renewable sources. Until he can, the BWL’s going to continue its “college try” mentality, giving every source the change to prove itself as cost-effective and reliable.
The BWL is also working on an energy efficiency plan, which will hopefully help consumers suck up less energy.
“I’d like to think that we at the Board of Water & Light are already in the vanguard, in that we’ve already had our RPS for two years, so we’re two years ahead of the state standard. But, we’ve got a lot more to develop,” Lark says.To receive Capital Gains free every week, click here.
Ivy Hughes is the managing editor of Capital Gains.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
BWL Downtown solar array
BWL General Manager Peter Lark
The BWL's electric car
Landfill gas-powered generators at Granger
Solar panels being installed near Downtown Lansing
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie