When Ric Evans won a Board of Directors seat at Great Lakes Energy three years ago, it marked the first time a pro-renewables candidate joined the co-op’s board.
Evans’ credentials helped: He’s a veteran energy efficiency contractor who’s analyzed and retrofitted hundreds of buildings, and teaches building efficiency at Northwestern Michigan College, in Traverse City.
He also walks his talk, living with his wife in their efficient, nearly grid-free farmhouse, near Ellsworth.
Evans wants GLE to take better advantage of energy efficiency’s ability to provide more power at an extraordinarily low price, keep utility costs down, and cut air pollution and greenhouse gases.
We asked him about his initial stint as a GLE board member, the lessons he’s learned, and what he would focus on if he’s re-elected.
GLE members in Emmet County can vote for Ric Evans by filling out and returning the ballot they receive this week in their copies of the co-op’s Country Lines magazine.
Michigan Land Use Institute: What can you tell us about your first three years on the GLE board?
Evans: Even in just the three years I’ve been there, and going to conferences and conventions, the shift in renewables and efficiency has been big. It’s gone from kicking the can down the road to, all of a sudden, dozens if not hundreds of co-ops having solar demonstration projects or big, main installations.
There’s definitely a broad debate going on, and it’s exciting to be part of it.
MLUI: What kind of things have you learned on the board?
Evans: There were some things I didn’t realize going in, like how big of an organization GLE is. It’s one of the top 10 co-ops in the country. It’s on the map more than I anticipated.
I learned I was unrealistic about some things, like not knowing how our relationship with Wolverine [Power Supply Cooperative] works, and what our actual generation options are. I didn’t realize we can’t just generate power ourselves [that’s what Wolverine does]. I was hoping to have more impact on producing renewable energy.
I went in thinking there could be bigger changes and quicker options for changing them. And while industry is changing rapidly, it is still slow moving. There’s lots of discussion about renewables and efficiency, but the pace can be a little frustrating.
MLUI: So why do you want another term?
Evans: It takes a few years to really get your head around this massive industry, how it works, the various players. I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with that now.
And our board should be diversified. If I were not there, some discussions we’ve had about efficiency and renewables would not be happening.
The people I’m running against this time have great qualifications, but they don’t have background in energy and don’t have the perspective about renewables or efficiency that I do. Like it or not, things are changing dramatically; the next 10 or 20 years will be fascinating. Utilities will be forced to reevaluate how they do things.
So, having a unique perspective on bigger energy concerns is important. Others can bring their different business backgrounds to the board, but renewable energy and efficiency are such chief components for moving utilities forward that having that voice on the board is really important. I want to be one of those voices.
MLUI: Well, given everything you’ve seen since joining the board, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of clean energy at your co-op?
Evans: I am optimistic. One thing great about co-ops compared to investor-owned utilities is that we are not in it just to sell electricity.
This rate restructuring we just did enables us to fully embrace efficiency and renewables.
One thing I hear all the time is that, in order for renewable energy to become as prevalent as we need for a clean energy economy, utilities have to have different rates structures. Right now profits are made only by selling more juice.
But when solar comes online, if the utilities are not getting appropriate dollars to maintain lines and expect to make it just on the kilowatts they sell, there won’t be enough dollars to maintain that infrastructure. But co-ops like GLE can restructure rates; if the privately owned utilities don’t change their pricing structure, like we’ve done, they are going to be in trouble moving forward with distributed generation, like rooftop solar panels.
I’m optimistic because there’s some great education going on now. GLE does promote things people can do to cut use. The solar demonstration project we just placed on our budget would not be there without me on the board. The idea has received a lot of great feedback, but I see it as just sticking a toe in the pond. It will show that solar can work here, and that is important.
MLUI: So you do feel like you are making a difference?
Evans: Maybe I expected it to move quickly, but it is like turning a freighter—it takes awhile. Once it does start turning, there are some very positive things. They will happen almost whether we want them to or not.
Even the other directors and the legal team compliment me on being there, whether they agree with me or not. They are willing to hear and consider other ideas.
You know, it was a unanimous vote on the solar demonstration project.
We have a very well run business, so the company is solid as far as that goes. But there is always going to be some resistance and definitely some growing pains. It is an industry in transition. That is on local and national level.
MLUI: What are your thoughts on the future of co-ops, given the changes you see?
Evans: I’m falling in love with the co-op model. Dollars are being returned to customers, not to Wall Street. A lot of people see utilities as this evil thing, but co-ops are different. Our numbers are way better as far as customer service.
But I think we can always do more. I would certainly favor having all co-op buildings become solar demonstration projects, at a minimum.
But it has to make economic sense; that’s always been the hang-up. At the same time, we amortize power plants over 50 or 60 years. They are expensive, but they last a long time. So, when you have a 15-year payback for solar panels, that may sound like a long time, but if it’s over a lifetime it’s just pennies.
That is why I think the co-op will start looking at more renewable energy and energy efficiency: They are much longer-term, cash-positive investments for our members. Solar’s payback is basically guaranteed.
There are lots of opportunities for GLE to step it up and be a leader.
MLUI: Tell us your thoughts on financing for renewables and efficiency.
Evans: Low-interest capital access is certainly something I think about, and it is on most co-ops’ radar. We have excellent access to large dollars at low cost because of our industry.
It will be interesting to see how this fact helps transform our industry. I was just at a conference where this was brought up as a challenge. Any business, no matter which one, if you don’t offer them services they want [such as rooftop solar systems], someone else will. So it’s up to co-ops and utilities to maintain their relevance if they are going to stay in the game.
The question is, How do we do this? I don’t think co-ops want to be the solar guys, putting up rooftop systems or whatever. We should leave it to private industry, since as a non-profit we can’t use the solar tax breaks, but there are fantastic opportunities with those types of financing mechanisms.
MLUI: What are your thoughts about Wolverine, now that they’ve given up on trying to build a new coal plant in Rogers City?
Evans: Well, I’m not at all against them. They are aiming to be the leader in the renewable generation required by PA 295. They may soon lead the way in the state. They are not doing it to be the greatest, but because adding more renewable energy just made economic sense.
They are going to overshoot their 10 percent renewables requirement. I can’t say much more, but if some things happen that they want, they will become the biggest renewable supplier in the state, at least on a percentage basis.
That tells me they are not afraid of renewables for renewables’ sake. It is more about the technical and costs issues. So I do see Wolverine as a big player.
But on the flip side, [the citizens group] Energy Smart Antrim is just starting up, which is about incentivizing people to not just leave all of their renewable energy and efficiency decisions to the power companies. How do we inspire people to do that on their own?
There is a lot of pressure on utilities, and people have a lot of opportunities that they didn’t have before, like PACE [Property Assessed Clean Energy financing for business-based renewable and efficiency projects] and other things coming together that will help.
That’s what’s so exciting. Maybe we don’t want to buy the panels for peoples’ homes, but maybe we do want to buy their output. There are already companies out there able to finance that. And because we are self-regulated, co-ops in particular have a very big opportunity to decide what their role is in that, and to do it quickly. Should we engage in rooftop solar, or let other companies do it?
MLUI: Any other thoughts on your first three years with GLE?
Evans: One thing I did not foresee was getting to know so many members. I really have enjoyed that. And getting to work with other board members and being a unique voice. It’s created lots of discussions that the board would not have otherwise had.
Co-ops like ours can really lead the way for new utility models, and that’s very exciting. Of course, there’s resistance; we’ve been running utilities for the same way for 100 years, and suddenly it’s all different.
So that requires different voices at the table, and I definitely provide that. Now I’m more familiar and comfortable with how things work, and I see the bigger picture, which gives me greater insight, compared to my competitors. I have a unique voice that will not otherwise be heard.
GLE members living in its District 5 receive ballots in the July-August issue of Michigan Country Lines magazine, due in mailboxes this week.
Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected]