Let it Snow! Thanks to excess heat the streets in the City of Holland stay open for business 

When the City of Holland in Michigan had to replace their old coal-fired power plant, they turned to a model of sustainable return on their investments to find a solution. Now, the new natural gas-fired plant brings substantial benefits for the environment, the residents, businesses, and tourists. The Holland Energy Park provides excess heat to the USA’s largest snowmelt system. 


by Roman Elsener

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“Holland is a beautiful city, settled 150 years ago by people from the Netherlands who wanted to live their lives as they chose, and be a prosperous community,” says Nancy de Boer, the Mayor of the community of about 35,000 residents near Lake Michigan. The settlers from Holland, says De Boer, instilled a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, a caring for each other, in their descendants. Economically, Holland and Ottawa County are doing well, having the lowest unemployment rate in Michigan. “Our biggest problem is talent, attracting more people to fill all of the jobs that we have. That’s a wonderful problem to have,” Nancy de Boer says.

Today Mayor de Boer, together with Dave Koster, the General Manager of the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW), and Liz Galea, Account Manager of Siemens for energy projects in the State of Michigan, are visiting the brand-new Holland Energy Park (HEP). The architecturally stunning, environmentally friendly plant, at a gateway location – at the entrance to downtown Holland – is the most recent proof of the city’s entrepreneurial spirit. The surrounding park with its pathways invites families and residents for recreational activities, jogging, and picnics. There is also a visitor center that functions as an interactive museum experience about energy in the community.

" Now, people drive by and they are like, “Wow – and this is open to the public? It’s so beautiful, can we bring our kids to play here?” "
Mayor Nancy de Boer
City of Holland, Michigan, Mayor Nancy de Boer at HEP
City of Holland, Michigan, Mayor Nancy de Boer at HEP
A true stakeholder process

“The last thing people envision with a power plant is an open park. They had no idea that there could be this vista of parkland and opportunity for the community,” Mayor de Boer says. The site had a neglected factory and some dilapidated houses on it before, with concrete slabs under it. For the Energy Park, they ground up that concrete and they reused it in the new building. “We’re recycling the resources that we found as we created the energy park, and celebrating the history of electric power and economic development of Holland in this new plant,” de Boer says.


This exemplary project was born out of necessity, though, Holland faced a major challenge: Their old coal plant, built back in 1939, was reaching an end of life. Dave Koster of HBPW explains. “We asked ourselves if it really was the best future for our community to invest in this coal plant again?”


In a stakeholder-driven process, they took a long-term view of the community’s future energy needs. “We did what I consider a unique process for power generation, we explored a sustainable return on investment model. We brought business, education, special interests, and government to the table to talk about this problem of needing a new power supply,” Koster says.


Mayor de Boer and the other stakeholders looked at the different scenarios and types of technologies from coal to natural gas to renewables, to not doing anything: What if Holland decided not to build a new generation and started relying upon just the grid, buying their power from others? “When we built the first power plant choices were very limited,” says De Boer. “Now the choices are much more expanded, and who knows what they will be 50 to 100 years from now?” The principles, she is convinced, remain the same: “That we are here to make this world a better place for future generations.”

CHP as ideal solution
The gas fired-heat and power plant in the City of Holland
The gas fired-heat and power plant in the City of Holland
A decision for natural gas-fired CHP

What became clear was that building natural gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP)technology would help to change the carbon footprint of the community substantially. It would also provide a very cost-effective and efficient solution, and it came coupled with an investment in renewables – along with growing the portfolio of wind energy and landfill gas generation that HBPW already had.


The stakeholders chose Siemens Energy as their partner to implement their plan. Not only should the new plant be more powerful and cleaner, it would also have to be able to integrate power from all types of renewable sources. “They wanted to make us part of the team. They wanted us to bring advanced-class technology, and I think they really inspired us to look within our own organization to figure out what is the best technology and strategy to make this project a success,” Galea says.


In her opinion, CHP is a great solution for Holland because the city not only needed power, but it also needed heat in the form of hot water to run under the streets and sidewalks to melt snow during the winter. The concept of CHP is that you take the heat coming off two gas turbines – Siemens Energy SGT-800s in Holland’s case, producing around 50 megawatts each – and use it to produce steam to power a steam turbine, Siemens Energy installed an SST-400. In Holland, they then pull that hot circulation water off of the condenser for snowmelt.

" The snowmelt system is invaluable to downtown Holland. "
Optician Bob Schulze
Snow-free downtown boosts business

Michigan gets a lot of snow during the winter months and heating the streets in downtown is not only an environmentally friendly solution, but it is also good for business. Bob Schulze is an optician, and the owner of Globe Design, a stylish shop in the thriving downtown business area. An accomplished guitar player, Schulze also transforms his shop into a popular live music venue during the heavy Michigan winters. “The snowmelt system is invaluable to downtown Holland. I wouldn’t be able to do without it. I know, my business in January and February will not suffer. People come down here. There’s free parking and they can walk without trudging through snow and risking life and limb,” says Schulze.


With the highly efficient natural gas-fired new plant come substantial environmental benefits, too. Not only will the community reduce its carbon footprint by 50 percent, the plant also helps to save water, and delivers water not only for the snowmelt, but for heating, too. And that’s not all: “Normally here in the north, we lay down salt to melt snow,” says Galea, herself born in Michigan. “Reducing that salt and the impact it had on the surrounding freshwater is a huge benefit for Holland.”


The pride of the community in the solution found by consensus, over the course of the stakeholder’s meeting, was reflected when it came down to designing the actual power plant. “It wasn’t just slap up the construction and get machines in there. We wanted to find an architectural firm that can help us design a power plant, together with a visitor center, and in harmony with the surrounding park,” Mayor de Boer says. “Now, people drive by and they are like, ‘Wow – and this is open to the public? It’s so beautiful, can we bring our kids to play here?’”

VIsitors at the Holland Energy Park
Holland Energy Park includes a visitor center to provide education as well as electricity
Digital solutions for customers

Not just play, but learn, too: Even before the stakeholder process, HBPW was aware that they needed to raise the electricity literacy level of their customers. “We are engaging the community on their use of electricity in a lot of ways. We have a special team that goes and meets with customers to talk about various incentives that we offer with smart metering,” Koster says. HBPW also helps with efficiency improvements, lighting improvements, insulation improvements, and offers a number of rebates available to the customers.


There is one more benefit Nancy de Boer sees coming from closing the old coal-fired plant at the lake, and opening the new one near the site of their first historic windmill on Windmill Island Gardens. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for opening 16 acres of property on the waterfront that’s never been available before,” says Mayor de Boer. “That gives us a lot of great potential for additional growth and incentive investment.”

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Sept 22, 2017

Roman Elsener is a business, technology and news journalist.


Picture credits: Todd Winters