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Momentum builds for a regional energy planPrint

Clean Energy | December 13, 2012 | By Brian Beauchamp

Peter Garforth lays out opportunities for energy planning
Last week, energy expert Peter Garforth laid out the opportunities for creating a regional energy plan that could save the Traverse City region millions if done right.

The 88,000 people in Grand Traverse County spend $306 million a year on energy. Of those millions, 70 percent leaves the community—a huge tax and a drain on the people and the economy of the region.

But what if we dedicated ourselves to making sure more of that money stays in the region? What if we embarked on a deliberate plan to cut back on those energy costs, capture the energy that’s being wasted, and invest in new energy sources locally?

Those were the questions asked last week by Peter Garforth, internationally-renowned energy expert and consultant, at a half-day workshop attended by dozens of community leaders. Businessmen and women, government officials and nonprofit advocates all gathered to hear Garforth lay out the opportunities for creating a regional energy plan that could save the Traverse City region millions if done right.

It was a return visit for Garforth, who came to Traverse City last June for an Energy Efficiency Summit. His speech that day rallied support and sparked discussions for a new strategy to rein in energy costs, and ultimately, to create jobs in the region.

MLUI didn’t want to lose the momentum generated in June, and worked for the past six months to bring together community leaders interested in making a regional energy plan a reality. Working with the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce, MLUI convened a small working group in October and members decided to bring Garforth back up to elaborate on the opportunities in the region.

During his talk last week, Garforth reiterated what can be done by showing off examples from cities around the world that implemented their own energy plans. Copenhagen, Denmark not only cut down greenhouse gas emissions significantly, they also lead the world in building efficiency and are a global economic powerhouse. In Guelph, Ontario, a community energy plan created more than 2,000 green jobs and the city now has the lowest unemployment in the country. And even here in Michigan, where leaders in Holland just adopted their own regional energy plan that will prioritize energy efficiency and generate revenues for the local community.

But is it doable in northern Michigan? We’re not a world capital (in anything but cherries, that is). We don’t have the industrial infrastructure like our neighbors down in Holland. And we have our own history with contentious energy issues, like wind power and biomass.

Garforth’s answer: Yes, it’s doable, but it will require strong leadership in the community, and early engagement of skeptics who might question the benefits of such a plan. And half-steps aren’t enough—either set a high bar and get it done, or don’t bother.

Energy efficiency is the first step. Energy not used is always the cheapest, and energy not used is always the cleanest, Garforth says. Nearly 70 percent of our electricity is wasted through heat conversion alone. What if we captured that heat and used it to keep our homes and businesses warm rather than costly propane or natural gas?

Last week’s discussion ended with a broad question: Do we want to pursue this? And the response was nearly universal. It’s not a question of whether we need a regional energy plan, it’s a question of how soon we can start.

Well, there’s no time like the present. Why not get going as soon as possible?

Like heat and electricity, the energy behind this is too important to be wasted. 

Brian Beauchamp is the senior energy policy specialist for MLUI. You can reach him at brian@mlui.org or on Twitter at @BrianCBeauchamp.