Wake-up call reinforces Grand Haven leaders’ focus on sustainable practices

Residents of Grand Haven and neighboring communities that depend on municipal water experienced a wake-up call last year.

It was the first time in 17 years they were limited from watering their lawns and crops during the summer months in order to safeguard the water supply that’s derived from Lake Michigan, one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. But what happened in 2020 doesn’t end there.

Derek Gajdos, director of Public Works for the city of Grand Haven, predicts the conservation of city water will continue. This also holds true for the five communities Grand Haven provides water to: Grand Haven Township, City of Ferrysburg, Spring Lake Village, Spring Lake Township, and Crockery Township.

In light of the need for sustainability planning, Grand Haven and the partner communities are conducting a study to assess system demands and potential solutions for a sustainable and reliable water source. As part of that approach, the conservation of water and energy supplies will play a larger role in the future.

Sustainability forum

Gajdos and David Walters, general manager of Grand Haven Board of Light & Power, discussed their vision of the future at a recent Lakeshore Sustainability Forum, a regional program of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.
Derek Gajdos, director of Public Works for the city of Grand Haven
They discussed ways the community is looking to make water and energy utilities more sustainable, such as a more prudent use of municipal water, increased dependence on renewable energy, and the role a new generating facility on Harbor Island will play.

“Our use of water has environmental and financial impacts and societal impacts as well,” Gajdos says. “The city owns and operates a downtown water filtration plant that draws 22 million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan. We are reimaging our water use. We can’t just keep living the way we have in West Michigan.”

‘A long haul’

Current city ordinances require Grand Haven residents to have some sort of vegetation in their front lawns — lawns that require water. Gajdos floated the idea of tiered water costs, without going into specifics.

“We need to take action, we need to start doing something because it is going to be a long haul to turn this thing about,” he says. “Our culture, our society, with this abundant source, the problem is using domestic water for stuff that it was designed to drink rather than make our houses and community look beautiful.”

Domestic groundwater supplies, which are primarily private wells maintained by homeowners and used for farms and lawns, are not a sustainable, widespread source for water, Gajdos notes. Groundwater supplies have been on the decline, and the fluorides found in the water are “not good.”

“As a culture and society, we can do anything; it’s just the cost,” Gajdos says. 

Marketplace supply

Walters says the city is purchasing 100% of its energy supply this year from the marketplace via the Michigan Public Power Agency (MPPA), which selects — on Grand Haven’s and other municipalities’ behalf — energy partners, and short- and longer-term power purchase agreements.
David Walters, general manager of Grand Haven Board of Light & Power
The reliance on MPPA is a result of Grand Haven no longer generating its own power — and therefore no longer belching carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“In the 2016-17 calendar year, Grand Haven was producing some 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide locally, and in 2018-19, it went down to 180,000 tons. As of today, that amount is zero,” Walters says. “We are out of the generation business and are depending 100% on the marketplace to provide our power supply and working through (MPPA) to supply our needs.”

Renewable energy goal

The goal is to have Grand Haven purchase 25% in renewable energy by 2022. 

“The state of Michigan requires that right now (15% of utilities’ energy come from renewable sources),” Walters says. “We’re exceeding that. By 2022-23 we will hit the 25% number. There’s no timeline, but it will be about 30% in the late 2030s.”

The obvious exception to purchasing energy from the marketplace is the planned construction of an operations and technology center at the utility’s Harbor Island location, where the now-shuttered J.B. Sims Generating Station was based. The city council had deemed the continued use of the coal-fired plant no longer was cost-effective.

Smaller facility

Instead, a smaller local generating facility will house GHBLP’s advanced distribution hub, operations staff, grid interconnection, downtown substation, and a 12.5-megawatt combined heat and power generation facility. This project represents the best long-term local solution that will help protect Grand Haven from wholesale energy price spikes during peak summer load conditions. It also will lower its downtown snowmelt operating costs in the winter and empower Grand Haven to leverage better power purchase contracts for energy going forward, according to the city’s website.

The new facility is slated to go online on June 1, 2023.

“When we went to a market purchase basis, (the city council) also wanted to see (Grand Haven) not 100% dependant on the marketplace but have a backup capacity with some firm resource,” Walter says. “When the city council approved it, there were two things in December 2018 it directed: make sure (the downtown) snowmelt system has a resource and have a backup system with the energy purchases.”

Not a replacement

Walters clarifies the new plant is not an attempt to replace the J.B. Sims coal plant.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Walter says. “If that plant is replacing Sims what is it replacing Sims with? What local wind turbines or solar panels are we going to put up? Our answer is none. We are not going to produce the energy. We are not going back to a situation where we generate the vast majority of our power within the city limits. Even if we lined the solar panels and put all solar panels on the entire Sims site, it wouldn’t come close to the amount of energy we receive from a remote solar facility.”

In a real sense, Grand Haven’s increased reliance on renewal energy demonstrates its progressive stance.

“The city of Grand Haven is in a better position in any municipality in Michigan,” Walters says. “Every municipality (in the state) has a fossil fuel plan that’s going to stay there five years, 10 years, 20 years. Many of those cities have natural gas-fired units. Many have bought into larger coal-fired plants owned by Detroit Edison, Consumers Energy. Grand Haven, to my knowledge, is the only utility — if you look out five years — it’s (expanding its use of) renewable energy. (We are) building this small plant to back up renewable purchases … as part of our long-term integrated energy plan.”

Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.