**This column originally appeared as a Forum op-ed in the Traverse City Record-Eagle on Sunday, Feb. 10.
Last week, the Michigan Land Use Institute sent a letter to Traverse City Light & Power’s board, at their invitation, describing the qualities we would like to see in a new executive director for the city’s publicly owned utility.
We were glad the board asked the community for suggestions; the new director will lead the municipally owned power company at a remarkably tumultuous time in the state, national and worldwide utility and energy industry sectors. The choice will affect TCL&P and the city’s economy, reputation and environment.
Our message is clear: TCL&P board members should look far and wide for a new director, attract the best candidates possible, and interview them with wide-open minds and complete transparency.
Like every utility today, Traverse City’s is at a crossroads. It must choose between its business-as-usual model and the new, even revolutionary 21st-century models now emerging around the world.
Coal power is dying out—it’s dirty, increasingly expensive, increasingly regulated, and ever harder to dig up.
Natural gas is thriving—it’s cleaner than coal, currently much cheaper and abundant, but there are tough questions about “fracking” and its long-range price.
Renewables are also thriving—wind and solar power gets cheaper by the day, but they require a grid better than the often-shaky one we’re all depending on.
Energy efficiency is taking off—utilities, businesses, homeowners and all levels of government are looking for ways to finance projects that cut energy demand, costs and emissions. A push for communitywide efficiency projects is emerging here.
Distributed generation options like rooftop solar panels, backyard wind turbines and geothermal systems are growing rapidly.
Efficiency and distributed generation are emerging as powerful economic development tools. They generate local jobs and keep former “energy dollars” in town, rather than shipping them to coal-mining states.
Many utilities don’t like to talk about that last point. They think goals like profitability and reliably supplying cheap power are enough. But that’s why municipal utilities are such great things; there are no stockholders to please, only the community itself, which owns the company.
So, if a community likes the idea of, say, building a residents-owned solar installation, or starting a community bank to finance efficiency work, or trading a 1 percent rate increase for more renewables, environmental stewardship and jobs, a municipal utility can respond with a genuine, face-to-face, town-hall discussion and decision. That’s something the big private utilities simply cannot do.
That’s why people should express their thoughts to the TCL&P board about this crucial decision. And that’s why it’s important that the new TCL&P executive director have community-building skills, a broad overview of the utility and energy industry sectors, a deep understanding of new technologies and utility business models—and of how utility decisions can help or harm local economics. That director can make TCL&P, our community-owned utility, shine.