|Mary Brower on her farm in Antrim County.|
Mary Brower is running for the Great Lakes Energy Cooperative board of directors because she wants her utility to embrace the future—particularly moving beyond coal power to more renewable energy and energy efficiency.
But in some ways she’s a little old-fashioned.
She and husband Aaron operate Bluestem Farm, a small operation in Antrim County, in a style that recalls the 19th century: They sell as much of their food as possible to neighbors. Their approach emphasizes sustainability by avoiding chemical fertilizers and making sure the soil is in better, not worse, shape at the end of a growing season.
Mary’s an organizer, too. She’s involved with several groups that are rebuilding the local food economy that was once the lifeblood of rural communities like hers, before “modern” practices nearly erased small-scale, locally marketed farm products.
Brower also taught high school and grade school kids, supervised teaching staffs, and produced post-graduate seminars and workshops for her fellow educators.
“It makes sense to embrace technology that advances our ability to rely on renewable energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels like coal,” she writes in her campaign biography. “Not only does this strategy help our society gain independence from energy sources which pollute the environment and contribute to climate change, it helps to create skilled, clean jobs right here in northern Michigan.”
Great Lakes Energy members will receive a ballot for their board of directors election in the July-August issue of the co-op’s magazine, Country Lines, which hits mailboxes soon. Brower recently took a break from her daily farm chores to speak by phone about her campaign to persuade fellow co-op members to check her name on the ballot and mail it in.
Michigan Land Use Institute: You are obviously a very busy person. Why are you running for GLE’s board of directors?
Mary Brower: It feels like this is an important moment for Great Lakes Energy. They do a lot of wonderful things: They have outstanding rates, even though they have more miles of power lines to maintain than other co-ops. And they do a great job of maintaining service. But when it comes to their energy portfolio—the different ways they generate energy—they really can do better.
Right now we are relying on burning coal to get 90 percent of our power. That is strikingly worse than Michigan as a whole, and the nation, too. So I think it is really important to increase our renewables portfolio.
MLUI: But what can the board do, given that it’s obligated to get all of its power from Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative—which is still trying to build a new coal plant in Rogers City?
Mary Brower: I know a lot of decisions happen above the heads of our board, but there needs to be a voice about this on the board. Rick Evans (an energy efficiency analyst and solar power installer elected to the board two years ago as a pro-clean energy candidate) is doing a great job advocating for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
But I don’t think that the board represents its constituents very well. Rick is one person on a nine-member board, and a lot more people care about renewables and efficiency than one-ninth of the population.
MLUI: Have you paid much attention to utilities before?
Mary Brower: I have never worked for a power company, if that’s what you mean. I’m a concerned citizen with a background in public service who is interested in being a voice for greening our member-owned electric cooperative.
MLUI: Do you see much going on with any of Wolverine’s co-ops [GLE, Presque Isle Gas & Electric, Cherryland Electric Cooperative, HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative, and Midwest Energy Cooperative] that encourages you?
Mary Brower: We can look to models like the community solar array that Cherryland cut the ribbon on last week in Traverse City. It’s so exciting, especially the fact that members’ demand for buying shares in the panels exceeds the supply. That is really encouraging.
MLUI: Do you see other indications that members would support more renewables or efficiency?
Mary Brower: I see a huge interest in environmental issues writ large. And in my work in local food and farming, I see a lot of concern about the tie between food and fossil fuel for its transportation. And when I go to a lot of small-town or medium-town political meetings and give my speech, there has been a lot of support for not relying so heavily on coal.
Rural coops have a special place in the community because they have democratically elected boards. So we do have an opportunity to bring a voice to the board with other views. And there are some other decisions, besides generation, that I would have more control over as a board member, like some of the good work that’s been done on energy efficiency and weatherization.
We can cut power usage by encouraging people to do that; it’s another way to start weaning all of us off of coal.
MLUI: Have you taken any efficiency or renewable energy steps yourself?
Mary Brower: We’ve done a lot of simple things, like switching to CFL bulbs. We try to make choices that make us less dependent on fossil fuels. So we sell our food locally: don’t use chemical fertilizers, which are made from fossil fuels; use animals and other plants to get rid of the plants we don’t want in our fields.
We would love to install solar panels. But as first-generation farmers, we had to take over not only the mortgage on our place but the huge startup costs of breeding animals and buying equipment. So a lot of things like that are in our long-term plan.
How about the co-op helping members install more efficiency or renewables?
Mary Brower: I feel they are trying to do a good job with that. But you can always do more.
But they did make a decision that concerns me: to increase the service charge for households and businesses alike and lower the per-kilowatt-hour rate. It’s the same service charge for everyone now, and that discourages conservation efforts by shifting costs away from how much we use. It definitely discourages people from conserving.
MLUI: Why did they do that?
Mary Brower: The public explanation is that they felt everyone is responsible for the infrastructure and so should share that basic expense equally. But there are a number of ways to look at that.
A plastics manufacturing corporation probably does use a larger share of the power lines than the one-family home next door. There are probably other ways to look at it, too. But it is definitely in the interest of these bigger companies and heavy users to cut rates and make it up with a larger flat fee on each member—it definitely lowers the bill for the big users.
GLE does offer credits for switching outdoor lights from mercury vapor to LED. They give a free package of CFL bulbs to any member that takes an online energy audit. But we can do more to encourage weatherization by offering bigger incentives and also by taking another look at this move to discourage conservation through this new rate structure.
MLUI: So how is your campaign for the board of directors going?
Mary Brower: I haven’t run for office before. It’s a shoestring campaign; there’s no war chest, just a lot of shoe leather. We live in East Jordan, and so we’re working out from there towards Charlevoix, Petoskey, political party meetings, reaching out to Sierra Club, which is helping me. I’m making a lot of phone calls, knocking on a lot of doors, visiting farmers markets.
It is going pretty well. I feel a lot of support from people. Some has to do with the crowd I’m talking to, but I think a lot of people are excited about this. They have to breathe the same air with coal emissions in it that I do.
MLUI: So, what are some reasons people should vote for you instead of another candidate?
Mary Brower: There are two spots open, and you can vote for two candidates.
I would be the only woman on the board, and I do think it’s important to have the voice of a woman on the board, and of someone who comes from outside of how things usually operate. I’m not a good ol’ boy in any sense; I’m not an insider in energy politics at all. I’m just someone who cares about the issues, my home, my children, and a lot of people relate to that.
MLUI: How does the co-op tradition intersect with farmers and farming?
Mary Brower: Farmers have a real exciting populist tradition as organizers through the old Grange system. They created some pretty exciting and, compared to today, pretty radical cooperatives. From grain co-ops to politics to other ways to bind farmers together for their common interest—and they were emphatically not corporate interests. They even provided burial plots by raising money through dances. It was not only financial and political; it was the way the community worked in a very deep way.
I’m very interested in taking responsibility and connecting social issues like that to public life.
MLUI: Anything else you want to tell our readers?
Mary Brower: Yes! Ballots will be coming out in the magazine in early July, probably the first week. Please open up the magazine, find the ballot, fill it out, and send it in! If you want to get in touch with me to help out, you can email me at [email protected] or visit https://facebook.com/MaryBrower4GLE . And please consider writing a letter to the editor of your local paper—that can really help.
** Read our interview with Mike Hayes, the other GLE board candidate who favors efficiency and renewable energy over more coal power.
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].