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The Road to 100: Grand Rapids' journey to be Michiganís first all-renewable-powered city

Michael Lunn

When Mayor George Heartwell established the city’s first renewable energy goal in 2005, the City was getting none of its power from renewable sources. After Grand Rapids achieved its initial goal of 20 percent in 2007 (a year ahead of schedule), Heartwell upped the goal to 100 percent by 2020. How is the city doing on its goal now? 
It’s mid July, mid 80s, and the smell coming off the preliminary treatment chambers at the Water Resource Recovery Center is, to put it mildly, intense. Environmental Services Department manager Mike Lunn is giving a tour of the plant to a group of City of Grand Rapids staff, interns, and interested visitors. Lunn explains how a series of grit channels screens solid matter from 40 million gallons of sewage each day before sending it along through a slow-moving roller coaster of anaerobic, aerobic, and ultraviolet treatments before finally releasing it into the Grand River.

How does Lunn describe the smell? “Pleasant!”

“I’ve been doing this 40 years. I’m a bad person to ask. You get to know where you are in the plant by the different odors,” he says. What’s happening at this plant will in large part determine whether Grand Rapids achieves its goal of becoming an entirely green-powered city.

That’s because Grand Rapids has committed to powering its municipal operations with 100 percent renewable energy within eight years, and the Water Resource Recovery Center is one of its biggest energy users.

A green wall saves rain water and increases building efficiency at Grand Rapids' water treatment facility.

When Mayor George Heartwell established the city’s first renewable energy goal in 2005, the City was getting none of its power from renewable sources. After Grand Rapids achieved its initial goal of 20 percent in 2007 (a year ahead of schedule), Heartwell upped the goal to 100 percent by 2020. For this and other initiatives in Heartwell’s “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability, which held that City initiatives should serve the good of the environment, the economy, and society simultaneously, Grand Rapids was dubbed the Greenest City in America.

City municipal operations require about 90 megawatts of electrical power generation per year. Today, 30 percent comes from renewables. Last year, in an acknowledgment that they would be unlikely to reach 100 percent by 2020, the City pushed the date back to 2025.

The big problem, Lunn says, is that once you make a big, bold, and very public commitment, you have to keep it.

Something out of nothing

Dr. Haris Alibasic knows that well. For more than 10 years, Alibasic served as director of Grand Rapids’ Office of Sustainability, exiting the post in December.

Dr. Haris AlibasicAlibasic believes Grand Rapids can achieve its goal, but he’s realistic about the challenges. “Reaching renewable energy targets is not easy. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes financial and other commitments from the city. You have to commit resources. You have to commit staff time. You have to look at how to reach those targets without additional burden to the municipality.”

Alibasic points to two specific challenges Grand Rapids has: first, unlike the City of Holland, for example, Grand Rapids does not own its own utility; second, funding.

“Let’s be frank about it, Grand Rapids never put forward, ‘We’re going to invest $1 million in renewable energy,’” says Alibasic.

The strategy, therefore, requires close collaboration with local businesses, with City departments like Environmental Services, which may be able to serve renewable and efficiency goals within the context of their own budgets, and with the utility company.

“Consumers Energy was in my view and still is, in my mind, a very important piece of the puzzle of meeting the 100 percent renewable target,” says Alibasic.

Lisa Gustafson, executive director of business customer care for Consumers Energy, says Grand Rapids is the single largest investor in the utility’s Green Generation program, which allows customers to offset their energy use by investing in renewable energy development.

According to Lunn, the Water Resource Recovery Center offsets a third of its electricity use through the program. He describes a close, comradely relationship with the utility, ranging from the big issues like renewable energy and energy efficiency, to the more immediate tasks of cleaning up debris and restoring power lines after storms.

Asked whether Grand Rapids could, if it had the money, simply buy its way to 100 percent renewable through Green Generation alone, Gustafson was doubtful. But, she insisted, Consumers would be able to find a way to help Grand Rapids achieve its goal by combining different strategies.

“There’s ways to accomplish that 100 percent if money wasn’t an object,” says Gustafson.

One of those ways is Consumers’ rebate program. For customers who make certain upgrades to reduce their energy consumption, as Grand Rapids has, the utility offers some of that savings back as a credit.

“They’ve been one of the biggest participants in the program since it began in 2009, which to me speaks to their commitment to sustainability,” says Gustafson, adding that the less energy you use, the easier it is to meet your renewable target.

Using a combination of rebate programs, renewable offsets, federal grants, and mutually beneficial partnerships with local businesses, Grand Rapids has been able to come up with some creative, even elegant solutions.

Getting Creative

Back at the Water Resource Recovery Center, Lunn is showing off one of the plant’s original rain gardens. It’s a jungly tract of native plants: prickly pear cactus, beebalm, purple coneflower, and butterfly milkweed. In addition to adding a dash of color to the sprawling industrial landscape, the gardens have the practical benefit of absorbing and filtering rainwater, relieving a little strain on the City’s stormwater system and cleaning up the water that eventually flows back into the river.

“Every time I go on vacation, our utility manager puts in a new rain garden somewhere,” Lunn says. “The trick is for me to go and find it.”

A rain garden absorbs and filters rainwater.

Since 2008, the Water Resource Recovery Center has reduced its yearly consumption from 27.8 million kilowatt-hours to 20.9 million in 2016. Getting there has required a number of tactics, some of them quite clever. For example, heat for the plant’s office building is piped from the final effluent, which never falls below 50 degrees, in much the same way a traditional geothermal system draws heat from underground. If the building already has a built-in heat source, why not use it?

Lunn leads the way to another example, housed in the North Aeration Control building.

Aeration is required to keep the oxygen-loving bacteria—“bugs,” as Lunn calls them—happily breaking down waste. That air comes from two sets of massive blowers, which together account for 46 percent of the energy used at the plant.

Lunn opens the door and has to shout to be heard over the roar of the machines. All five were built by Siemens, but two are conspicuously newer than the others. They were installed in 2015 at a total cost of around $2 million, but the City paid nowhere near that much, as Lunn explains.

In 2012, the City won a low-interest loan to cover the cost of the project from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, administered by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Because the City was able to demonstrate that the blowers would significantly reduce their energy usage, they were able to get half the principal investment—$1 million—forgiven through the Green Project Reserve, also administered by MDEQ. They then presented that same reduction to Consumers Energy, which gave them a rebate for $214,000.

In summary, the City got a 60 percent discount on a project that will pay for itself by the end of the decade.

“That’s a good project,” Lunn said.

According to City Manager Eric Delong, these and other measures have saved the city $25 million since 2010. But as Alibasic points out, energy efficiency initiatives are only part of the answer.

“At some point energy efficiency is going to have diminishing return on investment because there’s only so much energy efficiency that organizations can do. I mean, how many times can you replace light bulbs? They’re getting more and more efficient, but at some point … there aren’t going to be zero-energy light bulbs.”

Solar eclipse

Getting renewable energy projects off the ground has at times been more of a challenge.

In 2015, the City of Grand Rapids announced plans for a $18 million solar panel array to be installed at the Butterworth Landfill site, across the river from the Water Resource Recovery Center. The array would have provided 40 percent of the electricity needed at the plant. The city awarded the project to American Capital Energy out of Massachusetts, and the project was thought to be on track for completion by the fall of 2016.

“The company we selected went bankrupt and disappeared, so it kind of…stopped,” says Lunn. “That was about a year ago when they fell off the grid, pun intended.”

At the same time, Grand Rapids was growing. As population increases, more and more wastewater flows into the plant, some of it from large industrial food and beverage producers like Founders Brewing Company and Amway, who have recently undertaken large expansions. The wastewater plant, built in 1931, would have needed its own expansion to keep pace, which Lunn estimates would have cost $90 million.

But in this case, the problem contained its own solution.

Working with Founders, Amway, and SET Environmental, the City hatched a plan to install three biodigestion tanks in an unused corner of the Water Resource Recovery Center. Rather than pumping their liquid waste into the plant’s main purification system, the companies would be able to divert it to the biodigesters.

Biodigestion uses bacteria to break down organic matter. In the process, the bacteria produce methane which is then used to power a turbine to create electricity. That electricity will power the plant.

A pipeline running beneath Market Avenue will carry malt sugars, spent yeast, and hop matter—material Founders previously had no use for—straight to the digester where it will produce energy.

“In fact, what we used to call liquid waste, we now call liquid by-products,” says Founders Chief Production Manager Brad Stevenson.

Stevenson says the project is the result of a long-running dialogue between City officials, including Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, the Right Place, and local food producers about how to advance the good of all parties simultaneously.

Three 60-foot-tall digestion tanks are planned now, with the potential to add another three down the road. “We’re beer city, right, so when we’re done we’ll have a six pack,” says Lunn.

Lunn expects to break ground this fall. He estimates the biodigesters will provide 80 percent of the plant’s electricity. That’s twice as much energy as the solar array would have provided.

That’s not to say the City is done with solar. City Manager Delong says they’re exploring the addition of an array at the Lake Michigan Filtration Plant, installing solar panels on parking garages and city-owned buildings and are looking into reviving the Butterworth Landfill project. Delong also hints at a major announcement coming later this year related to the city’s 2030 District, a coalition of downtown businesses working with the city to reduce their energy and water use.

Bliss’ assistant Amy Snow-Buckner sums up the attitude among city officials: “The Mayor is confident that we can—and will—meet this goal.”

No city is an island

The progress Grand Rapids has made toward its renewable energy goal, reducing operational expenses, and making way for economic growth in the process, has not occurred in a vacuum.

On Inauguration Day, references to climate change were scrubbed from WhiteHouse.gov, a EPA climate science website was taken down in April, and climate science deniers are now leading multiple agencies. Then in June, President Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

Mayor Bliss responded to the Paris announcement by adding her name to a joint statement by hundreds of American mayors affirming their commitment to the goals of the agreement.

“If the President wants to break the promises made to our allies enshrined in the historic Paris Agreement,” the statement read in part, “we’ll build and strengthen relationships around the world to protect the planet from devastating climate risks.
“The world cannot wait—and neither will we.”

Michigan’s political and infrastructure context also factors into Grand Rapids’ ability to meet its goal.

At present, the City of Grand Rapids remains dependent on Consumers Energy for most of its electricity needs. Consumers derives 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, satisfying the state mandate. While Consumers continues to invest in renewable energy to meet the new 15 percent by 2021 goal signed into law in December, environmental advocates say Michigan’s utility companies can and should be moving more quickly.

James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council said that the state’s current power grid could support a 20 percent renewable energy target “and much, much more.”

“It is our belief that the renewable energy standard would have been higher if it had been supported by the major utilities in the state,” says Clift.

Gustafson of Consumers Energy points to the Tuscola County wind farm as evidence of the utility’s commitment to renewable energy. “We’re increasing our generation of renewable sources continually,” she says. “We’re very supportive of that. I hope that comes through loud and clear because that’s the truth.”

Echoing city officials, Kate Madigan, climate and energy specialist for the Michigan Environmental Council, agrees that Grand Rapids can achieve its goal, and she adds that the goal’s mere existence has already influenced other cities in Michigan, including her hometown, Traverse City.

When Madigan and a group of sustainability advocates got together in the spring of 2016 to craft a renewable energy proposal for Traverse City, they drew inspiration from corporations like Steelcase and General Motors who have their own 100 percent goals and also looked south to what was happening in Grand Rapids. Former Mayor Heartwell even paid them a visit to speak in support of their initiative.

“Having a city that already has set this goal and is working towards it in Michigan just makes it so much more tangible and achievable,” says Madigan.

Indeed, 100 percent renewable energy is not a pipe dream. Many American cities have already achieved it, from Burlington, Vermont, to Georgetown, Texas.

Traverse City was also spurred on by what Madigan says are the visible effects of climate change in the state. She points to the loss of the state's cherry crop in recent years and to the increased burden on storm water systems resulting from increasing rainfall.

“This isn’t a political issue. This is a real issue that is affecting our lives,” says Madigan.

On an island in the sun

The reality of climate change has gotten a little more immediate for former Office of Energy and Sustainability Director Haris Alibasic.

Now on faculty at the University of West Florida, Alibasic lives with his wife and four kids, ages two, four, six, and eight, in Pensacola Beach, a small town located on Santa Rosa Island, a long spit of land that runs along the Florida panhandle in the Gulf of Mexico, only a few meters above sea level at its highest point.

“We’re actually 30-second walk from one side of the beach and we’re one minute’s walk from the Gulf side.” For the last 12 years, the island has been largely hurricane-free.

Alibasic’s work on sustainability continues. The City of Pensacola appointed him to their Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Task Force, and in January he presented research at an international sustainability conference in Brazil.

Alibasic’s kids attend Pensacola Beach Elementary School, and one of them has developed into a soccer fanatic. “They’re just great,” he says. “They’re really fun, actually.”

“If we find trash on the beach they will pick it up and throw it away. If they see a power plant they will say, ‘Oh no, greenhouse gas emissions.’ What I would say, it didn’t change my perspective, having kids, but it really gives me a different lens looking at sustainability and climate change.”

His old position in the Office of Energy and Sustainability, by the way, is still open.
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