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The North Wind

The North Wind

The North Wind

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Opinion — Its okay to outgrow your college friends
Opinion — It's okay to outgrow your college friends
Megan PoeApril 12, 2024

Cogeneration plant awaits approval

Northern awaits the approval of a combined heat and power cogeneration plant that will provide heat and electricity for the entire NMU campus and operate entirely on wood byproducts – what is left over from logging operations in the Upper Peninsula.

“We see benefits here: we see benefits for the local economy, we see benefits for taking an unused product out of the woods and finding a use for it,” said Art Gischia, director of purchasing and auxiliary services at NMU and head of this project. “We need jobs in the Upper Peninsula, and the bottom line is that if we can get this all pulled together, it’s going to save us all dollars in the end.”

Designs for an exclusively wood-burning plant come after a previous design that was challenged by Michigan’s Sierra Club and eventually brought before the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington D.C. for reconsideration. The former plans used coal as a back-up fuel, which is harmful to the environment. In an effort to expedite the construction of this plant, Northern looked again into the possibility of an exclusively wood-burning plant, and redirected the design.
The Sierra Club said that they are pleased with the new plan.
“It’s certainly light years ahead of where they were with the coal plant as an option. Definitely, it’s a better idea,” said Lee Sprague, clean energy campaign manager of Michigan’s Sierra Club.

Northern currently receives heat from Ripley’s Heating Plant which is owned and operated by NMU and operates using natural gas. Electricity is received from Marquette’s Board of Light and Power (BLP), a coal-burning plant. According to Gischia, constructing a facility of its own, Northern will save money and be more environmentally aware.

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The project is currently going through Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for approval, and construction is hoped to begin in 2010, opening for use in 2012.

Plans for this plant also include a research facility that will be available for Northern students, primarily biology and chemistry majors, to explore alternative energies, moisture sampling, the conversion of wood to biofuel and other options in terms of fuel sources.

“We think this is a good place for information and research to share with the state, with the nation and with the world because we’re kind of on the leading edge of 100 percent biomass generating facilities,” Gischia said. “What a great opportunity for our chemistry, biology students to actually be right on the cusp of research.”

Overall, the estimated cost for the entire project is between $60 and $68 million. Gischia said that this cost will be offset by money eventually saved from using wood, a product that offers more cost stability than the natural gas that is currently used.
Money to fund the project can come from a number of places: state appropriations, bonds or grants. Due to the state of Michigan’s economy, state appropriations are unlikely, Gischia said, although Northern has placed the plant on the top of its list for state monies.

“If money falls out of the sky and the state wants to fund a project, this is our No. 1 project because we know it is the best way to offset our operation costs,” Gischia said.

Otherwise, Northern has applied for grants and will sell bonds, which will be paid out of savings that Northern accumulates over time.

Before funding is needed, however, Michigan’s DEQ must review and approve the permit. Northern is waiting to hear back from the DEQ about limitations it might set, specifically on emissions.
“It’s rather like a tennis game: the balls now been tapped to their side of the net, and we’re waiting for a response back,” Gischia said.

Once the permit is returned to Northern, it must pass through a 30-day public comment period, allowing citizens to view the designs, and a public hearing which will be held at the end of that comment period. Once those steps are achieved and the permit is ultimately accepted by the DEQ, Northern has 18 months to begin construction.

It is possible that during the public comment period or the public hearing, opposition will be voiced which the DEQ is likely to take into consideration before issuing a final approval. When Northern’s previous proposal for a plant with coal as a back-up fuel went through public hearing, the Sierra Club was outspoken in their disagreement with the plant.

Not everyone is in agreement that this move is the best option. Marquette Commissioner Don Potvin was outspoken in his disapproval at the Tuesday, Oct. 13 city commission meeting. He said in a later interview that Northern, as a public university, should focus more on educating students than becoming involved in business.

“[Northern’s] mission is to teach, to educate, but it isn’t to invest in business.”

Potvin also said that if Northern ceases to get electricity from the Marquette’s BLP, the electricity bills for Marquette citizens will increase.

This claim was supported by Kirby Juntila, executive director of the Marquette BLP, who said that because Northern is the BLP’s largest customer it is likely that bills will go up. He thinks, however, that in the long run, the new plant will benefit the BLP as well.

“There certainly will be a drop in revenue that the customers will have to absorb in the short run,” Juntila said, “but we think as Marquette grows, in the long run, it won’t be a bad thing for the customer.

Gischia believes that the benefits of turning to this new plant are numerous, and he hopes that the Marquette community will support the plans once benefits this plant will have on the U.P. community are known.

“It’s good for the Upper Peninsula economy; it’s utilizing a resource that’s currently being left in the woods, and it provides jobs,” Gischia said. “We think those are all positives for why burning wood is good for this economy.”

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