A believer in 'prudent avoidance'
Loren Howard likes to stay proactive and to think ahead. The general manager of the Holland Board of Public Works says that when it comes to public utilities, we should be thinking 20, 30 — perhaps even 40 years out.
But Howard likes to look back in time, too, to a summer almost 45 years ago when he was a 16-year-old kid from Holland spending a month in the mountains of Colorado as a participant in Outward Bound.
"The Outward Bound motto is 'To serve, to strive and not to yield,'" said Howard. The experience was "a defining moment for me. It influences me yet."
The motto almost sounds like it could be part of his current job description.
The HBPW, the second largest municipal electric utility in Michigan, serves 30,000 people — all of Holland plus several townships around it. Besides electricity, it also provides the public water supply and operates the wastewater treatment plant — and even a small fiber optics service.
In the last fiscal year, the HBPW provided more than $75 million worth of electricity to its customers; its total operating revenues for all of its utilities was more than $88 million.
Right now, the HBPW's coal-fired James De Young power plant is in the spotlight. It has the attention of the state of Michigan, the federal Department of Energy and the Sierra Club. The HBPW wants to replace the smallest and oldest of its three boilers at James De Young with a much larger boiler of 78 megawatts, which would effectively double the total capacity of the plant.
The new boiler would use the latest coal-fired generating technology: a circulating fluidized bed boiler with oxy-fuel combustion. Because that technology yields a concentrated stream of CO2 that can be captured and sequestered far underground in certain types of geologic formations — and because Holland has that underground geology — the DOE is considering the De Young plant for a Clean Coal Power Initiative grant of up to $200 million. The grant would be used to build a sophisticated carbon capture and sequestration system that would possibly reduce the De Young plant's carbon emissions in the air to virtually zero.
That seems like it would please the believers in global warming, which probably includes many members of the Sierra Club — but that organization is suing the HBPW, claiming the De Young plant is illegally polluting the air.
Then there is the state of Michigan. Gov. Jennifer Granholm decreed in February that Michigan must reduce reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity. Now the Michigan Public Service Commission is asking the HBPW for evidence that expansion of the De Young plant is necessary.
Loren H. Howard
Howard, who has been with the HBPW since 1987, was named general manager two years ago. His power plant experience started around 1982, but he's actually had two careers: one in electrical generation and one in the military.
When he graduated from Michigan Tech in the early 1970s with a mechanical engineering degree, the Vietnam War was still going and so was the draft, with a lottery system determining who had to go. Howard's birth date made him No. 16; anybody with a number that low was a goner.
"I was going to go someplace," said Howard.
He decided to choose a branch of the service before he was actually called up. He enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and was accepted in its officer candidate school, serving as an officer in New Orleans for three years, when he was discharged from active duty. However, he remained in the Coast Guard Reserve and served on the Great Lakes for 22 years, retiring as group commander of all reserve units from Chicago to Sault Ste. Marie.
After his active duty ended in the mid-1970s, Howard went back to Colorado; his Outward Bound experience left him permanently in love with the mountains. He went back to school for a while, thinking about a possible career in medicine, but instead ended up working for the Colorado highway department.
Then he returned to Michigan, working for a boat manufacturer in Manistee. Five years later, he landed a job at the Packaging Corp. of America at its containerboard mill in Filer City, next to Manistee. Paper production requires a great deal of power and water; paper mills have their own generating facilities and treatment plants so they can reuse their wastewater.
"It was almost a mirror of the utility we have here in Holland," said Howard.
He enjoyed the work a great deal, and although he wasn't really looking for another job, he heard about an opening at the Holland BPW and got it.
"I had seen the utility business on the industrial side at the paper mill," he said, and decided it was something he really liked. Now he wanted to try the municipal side — in his hometown, where the schools might be better for his growing family.
Actually, Howard was thinking about going to school too.
"I do love school," he said.
Once back in Holland, he began taking classes at night, eventually earning an MBA from Western Michigan University. Then he started to work on a Master of Science degree in computer science, and was half-way through when he became the general manager at the HBPW. The M.S. is on the back-burner now.
Before being named general manager of HBPW, Howard was superintendent of electricity production and then power resource director.
The electricity demand in Holland in Howard's first 15 years at the BPW grew about 6½ percent per year, he said. “That doesn't sound like a lot, but in the electricity business, that's a huge number." It was difficult for the HPBW's generating capacity to keep up with the demand in those years, he added.
Starting around 2000, when the dotcom bust hit the economy, electricity use in Holland began to decline, and that has continued due to the recession. According to a forecast by the HBPW, Holland's annual electricity demand in 2010 will be between 915,000 and 920,000 megawatt hours. By 2011, it will have slid lower, to between 905,000 and 910,000, but will then start to pick up again with annual demand at about 920,000 megawatt hours by the start of 2014. From there the predicted increase is steep, with consumption in 2020 estimated to reach 1 million megawatt hours.
"We have seen a decline in consumption the last couple of years, but we like to think that’s not going to continue," said Howard. "We like to think the economy is going to come back."
Two years ago, the HBPW and city council decided something should be done soon to prepare for the eventual increase in demand. The option the HBPW likes the most is expansion of the De Young plant. Another option is buying in to one of two proposed coal-fired generating plants in Michigan — one proposed by Consumers Energy in Bay County and one by Wolverine Power Cooperative near Rogers City. Recently, the MPSC reported it does not think the two new plants are necessary at this time.
The HPBW is also considering wind-generated electricity. It has meteorological towers testing wind conditions at a site near De Tour in the eastern Upper Peninsula. An installation there could possibly have 20 or 25 utility grade turbines, he said.
"It's like carbon capture and sequestration," said Howard. "They are all technologies that I think we need to investigate."
He said, however, that wind power has limitations — one typically being the distance between the turbines and the consumers of that electricity. As far as being cost-effective in the long term, small wind farms of five or 10 turbines are "nice to look at" but "just aren't really viable," Howard said.
"You really need to do things that make sense, in the area that you live in," he said.
Some opponents of coal-fired power plants claim they are a significant cause of air pollution that leads to global warming. Howard said he does not know whether global warming is real, or not.
"But I believe in prudent avoidance," he said. "I believe we can develop a technology that will help us emit less (carbon), and we can do it sufficiently. Is it going to cost more? Yes. But it is going to cost less than some of the alternatives."
He said the carbon capture and sequestration system proposed for the expanded De Young plant could possibly become the standard for power plants that burn fossil fuel.
"Maybe we can prove it, maybe we can't," he said.
As for the Sierra Club and its stance against coal-fired power plants, Howard noted that 40 percent of electricity in the U.S. today is from coal.
“Steel-making relies on coal. There are a lot of processes that use coal. To simply say, 'We're not going to use coal. We don't want any new coal (generation),' today, in my mind, is unrealistic."
"I think, long term, for our country and for the world, nuclear is the right answer," said Howard.
He said he understands there are now about 26 new applications for large nuclear plants.
However, he noted that some countries are interested in "small nuclear plants, 100 megawatt size — kind of the size that the Holland Board of Public Works could look at. And we're investigating that."