Two years ago, I rode the BATA bus from Glen Arbor to Traverse City for my first day as Clean Energy Policy Specialist at the Groundwork Center. Just after passing the stand at Gallagher’s Farm Market and Jacob’s Corn Maze I looked out the window to see a giant, though somewhat outdated, wind turbine churning away on the north side of M-72. Then owned by Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP), the turbine provided a small but symbolic amount of electricity to Traverse City. I was inspired and excited to promote renewable energy in northern Michigan.
Last week, I took the same ride into town. Most of the viewscape hadn’t changed. But now, just in front of the wind turbine, 100 steel poles had been driven into the ground. Before the month ends, these poles will support 3,400 solar panels, and Heritage Sustainable Energy’s array will provide approximately 20 percent of the electricity use for Traverse City’s governmental buildings.
It can be difficult to see rapid change when you are in the middle of it, but Traverse City, and the 10-county region of northwest Michigan, have come a long way in just two years. Traverse City is quickly transitioning from a fossil fuel-dependent city in a fossil fuel-dependent state and becoming a statewide leader on renewables and energy efficiency, as it supports jobs in the new energy economy.
Check out the below video to see the solar panels being installed earlier this week, and to hear Heritage Sustainable Energy operations manager Bart Hautala explain why this solar array establishes Traverse City as a leader in renewable energy.
“We all hear that Traverse City is a forward-thinking community. This is proof that they are,” said Hautala. “Buying energy from renewables is the way the whole world is going. It’s nice to see Traverse City keeping up the pace. Buying renewables not only saves on your energy bill, but it also helps your image. Everybody wants to look green, why not be green at the same time?”
Exhibit # 1 is the leadership of the Traverse City Commission. This past December, the Commission unanimously passed a resolution to power its municipal buildings with 100 percent renewable energy — following 25 other cities around the nation. The vote followed a campaign by organizations including Groundwork, the Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Climate Action Network, Citizens Climate Lobby, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, and others. Unlike many of those cities, however, Traverse City wanted progress fast, and committed to go green by 2020. If Traverse City can achieve that ambitious goal—which looks likely—we would join a small handful of cities, including Aspen, Colorado, and Burlington, Vermont, who have actually achieved 100 percent renewable energy.
One of the key tenets of the resolution was the establishment of a “Green Team” that would include a diverse group of leaders from local government, businesses, and the nonprofit sector. The Green Team has met every three months to push the city toward the 100 percent renewable goal. In nine months since the resolution passed, the Green Team has been busy, mapping potential solar projects, identifying promising energy efficiency projects, developing a baseline and putting numbers behind our 100 percent goal, and engaging the broader community. These efforts have helped move several energy efficiency projects forward.
The big move on the renewable energy front is the agreement between Heritage, TCLP, and the city, itself, to generate, buy, and use 1 megawatt of solar. Tim Arends, executive director of TCLP, the city-owned utility, worked hard to bring this deal together. This project, which I see when I take the BATA bus along M-72, represents a $2-3 million investment in local energy in Traverse City. Crucially, it also employs local workers to install infrastructure to harvest the sunlight that once fell on an unused field.
As exciting as Heritage’s solar farm and the Commission’s push for renewables has been, they represent just the beginning of what is possible. Since the 1 megawatt deal was announced, developers from around the state and Midwest have expressed interest in building renewable energy projects in northwest Michigan. Traverse City has begun to look at its own properties and other areas around town where it could build projects to meet the remaining 80 percent of what the municipality needs to reach its 100 percent goal by 2020.
Equally as important, a coalition of local groups has been awarded a technical assistance grant as part of the federal Department of Energy’s “Solar in Your Community Challenge” to develop an energy project whose revenue will benefit low- and middle-income families in our region. The electricity generated from the sun’s rays will stimulate local jobs to insulate, seal, and upgrade area homes, reducing energy use and, more importantly, energy costs for those who need it the most. Traverse City is primed to tackle this dilemma that has baffled energy planners around the world.
As the autumn harvest approaches, and as you tour the magnificent fall colors and visit farmstands bursting with apples, pumpkins and gourds, behold the windmill and new array of solar panels along M-72, just west of Traverse City. What you’ll see right before your eyes is the clean energy future, and an ambitious commitment that is transforming Traverse City into a national leader in the fast-growing renewable energy economy.
Dan Worth is the Clean Energy Policy Specialist at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org