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Residents and environmental groups concerned about proposed BWL plant – East Lansing information

Plans by the Lansing Water and Light Board (BWL) to build a new gas-powered reciprocating internal combustion engine (RICE) plant in west Lansing are raising concerns among residents and local environmental groups.

BWL plans to build the plant near the decommissioned Erickson Power Station on South Canal Road in Lansing. There was a coal-fired boiler on the premises, which was turned off in 2022.

The RICE power plant will support other energy projects implemented by BWL, such as the planned project of large battery storage facilities, the development of solar energy and an increase in the share of wind energy.

“They are designed to turn on and off quickly, generating power on-site to support renewable energy production that can ebb and flow as cloud cover or wind drops,” wrote BWL public relations specialist Emma McGlocklin in response to e-mails -questions from ELI by e-mail. “They work cyclically for short periods of time to ensure grid stability and support energy provided by intermittent resources such as wind and solar.”

A map of the proposed BWL facility layout shown during a virtual public hearing hosted by EGLE on May 1.

There is a need to increase energy production in part because of the large Ultima battery manufacturing plant coming to Lansing, McGlocklin said.

Residents and environmental groups spoke out against the RICE facility and questioned whether BWL had considered alternative, cleaner sources to increase energy production.

BWL is currently seeking an air permit for this project from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). EGLE is accepting public comments on the project until Wednesday, May 14. Information about submitting public comments is available found here.

While BWL says the project is part of a larger plan that is a step in the right direction for clean energy production, Capital Area Friends of the Environment founder Heather Douglas isn’t convinced.

“Why would you build fossil fuel plants now?” – Douglas asked in a conversation with Eli.

Douglas’ main concern is the hundreds of thousands of tons of emissions the plant is expected to emit each year.

Forecasted emissions from RICE installations. (From EGLE technical data sheet)

BWL stated that the forecasts given are based on the assumption that the plant will operate at all times, which is not true. BWL says emissions will be lower than the approximately 550,000 tonnes projected in the permit application, but does not provide an estimate of what actual emissions will be.

Douglas worries about the impact the plant could have on nearby residents with pre-existing conditions such as asthma or cardiovascular problems. When ELi asked BWL whether the project could negatively impact the health of nearby residents with pre-existing health conditions, the response was not clear.

“BWL has always and will continue to comply with all state and federal air quality standards,” McGlocklin wrote.

Douglas said she is particularly concerned about communities that struggle with health disparities within a few miles of the project. She said the lack of “environmental justice” policies in Michigan is troubling.

During EGLE’s May 1 public hearing on the project, Andrew Sarpolis, field manager for the environmental group Sierra Clubasked EGLE to deny BWL a permit.

“I am doing this for the sake of public health and climate change,” Sarpolis said, explaining his position.

“Health research has shown that some of the current standards for contaminants may still cause serious adverse health effects,” he continued. “Legal compliance is not a scientific health standard.”

East Lansing resident Nichole Biber, who frequently speaks on important environmental issues at East Lansing City Council meetings, also took time to explain her opposition to the project during the EGLE hearing. Biber spoke about the challenges of transitioning away from fossil fuel-based energy and how we are “chained” to a system that harms the environment.

Nichole Biber speaks before the East Lansing City Council in January 2023 (ELi file photo)

“It is amazing that there is a certain amount of poison that is considered harmful to our land and water,” Biber said. “It’s really something we need to move on from.”

Biber said there needs to be more attention to cleaner energy sources and a better explanation of why energy companies choose fossil fuel-based solutions.

Biber and Douglas were among many speakers who worried that the RICE plant was a step in the wrong direction as Michigan plans to transition to more renewable and clean energy sources.

McGlocklin said BWL is consistent with the state’s goals. She said BWL was “on track” to meet its target of generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

McGlocklin said currently about 27% of BWL’s total electrical capacity comes from renewable sources.