Joshua Davis performs Sting's "Fields of Gold" on the April 27 broadcast of NBC's "The Voice." (Photo: NBC)

Clean Energy Innovators: Mary Van Valin

October 21, 2015 | |

Mary sat down with us at her dining table—directly below the solar array on her roof—to talk education, solar, and community. Take a listen to find out why she thinks the future is so bright.

Interview w/ Mary Van Valin (Audio)

Mary Van Valin is a force of nature.

A retired math teacher, Mary spends her retirement helping to transform the Traverse City area into an equitable, resilient, thriving community.

In the two month since I met her, Mary launched an electric vehicle (EV) group purchase effort, taught fourth and fifth graders how to make solar cells, helped turn out close to 200 people to the State Theatre to watch Pope Francis address Congress, attended a March for Justice in Detroit, and gave the opening prayer at our [email protected] Commons gathering, where she echoed the Pope’s words—calling on the more than 600 Groundwork supporters in attendance, including U.S. Senators Carl Levin and Gary Peters, to care for God’s creation and one another by launching a “revolution of tenderness.”

The beauty of Mary is that she mixes ideas and action. The idea of a group EV purchase was less than 30 seconds old before Mary was on the phone with local dealerships asking about group buys. Someone wants to go solar—Mary has already found the financing. The State announces that they will show the Pope’s speech and Mary has 50 people lined up to attend. It’s exhausting, inspiring, contagious, and profoundly effective. 

Mary on Groundwork


Mary’s real focus and passion is not on the here and now, however. Maybe it’s the schoolteacher in her, or her climate work, but she is always thinking about how action today will lead to results in decades. To put it in solar finance terms, Mary is willing to invest upfront time and money today, while settling for a 20-year return on investment. 

Take her current big project—persuading Traverse Heights Elementary School officials to put a solar array on the school’s roof. She spent countless hours in meetings working as part of a team to help TCAPS figure out the logistical hurdles, all the while thinking about the future. And it’s a bright one.

Mary’s larger vision is for an innovative project for all the TCAPS schools—one in which the solar arrays that eventually cover every school rooftop add value to TCAPS buildings and cover a solid chunk of the district’s energy costs, but transmit other values, as well, that far exceed balance sheet calculations. 

Mary on Solar in Schools

Mary sees the arrays as a chance to create a 21st-century energy future for the region, one that makes customer ownership of their own power source the new normal. One in which locally made arrays are installed by local TCAPS graduates to benefit a new generation of TCAPS students, teachers, and parents. And, ultimately, one in which TCAPS graduates play key roles in the area’s government entities, non-profits, start-ups, utilities, and the TCAPS system itself—all working together to power northern Michigan cheaply, effectively, and cleanly.

Dan Worth is the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities’ energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected]

About the Series

From solar arrays to wind farms, net-zero homes to vehicle electrification projects, smart businesses to smart towns, Northern Michigan’s Clean Energy Innovators are making the area we love a hub for clean energy. The Groundwork Center has asked these pioneers to take a quick break from building the future to talk with us about their work and what excites them the most about the potential of a low-carbon economy in Northern Michigan.

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