Our nation, our economy and our world are transitioning toward renewable energy. The momentum appears unstoppable, despite the inertia in our federal government. Here in Michigan, clean energy advocate Skip Pruss has been a leading prophet both predicting and instigating this movement.
"Look to the evidence," said Pruss, who will lead a panel about the economic benefits of renewable energy at the upcoming Michigan Clean Energy Conference & Fair, June 23-25 in Traverse City (Purchase tickets here). "Every clean energy forecast by energy experts and governmental agencies like the Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency have grossly underestimated both the pace of the energy transition that is underway and the improvement in the economics of clean energy technologies."
During former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's two terms in office, Pruss directed the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and served as the state’s Chief Energy Officer. He also served as the governor’s Special Advisor for Renewable Energy and the Environment, and chaired the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council. Pruss also served on the U.S. Department of Energy’s energy efficiency and renewable energy advisory committee, providing guidance to the Secretary of Energy on energy policy and programs.
Pruss, who lives in Northport with his wife Brigid, co-founded 5 Lakes Energy in 2010, which specializes in energy policy and clean energy system development. In "retirement" he continues his work to enable and accelerate Michigan’s clean energy economy, and he also sits on Groundwork's Advisory Council.
We interviewed him about the conference, about the role of local clean energy movements, and about the market argument for renewable energy.
Groundwork: What has you most excited about the Michigan Clean Energy Conference coming to Traverse City? What do you expect to be your highlight of the weekend?
Pruss: I’m so very pleased that Groundwork has brought its organizational and communication capacity to support the conference and energy fair. The program is really excellent and participants should find the conference informative and useful – and there is no better place for any event than Traverse City.
It will be great to see (former Michigan) Governor Jennifer Granholm again and get her perspective on the energy transition that’s underway and the opportunities that are being created.
Groundwork: In the wake of the current U.S. President's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, how can states, regions or cities pick up the slack?
Pruss: They already are in clear and distinct ways. Leading states are competing for leadership in the transition to clean electricity and electrification of transportation. States are responding by forming regional collaborations. Cities — Traverse City included — are moving forward with aggressive clean energy agendas.
Though the withdrawal from the Paris accord was disheartening, I’m confident that the aggregate effect of the clean energy policies and procurement by state and local governments as well as the rapidly expanding clean energy preferences of the business community will enable us to reach and exceed our national commitment.
Groundwork: Since the panel you'll moderate is titled "Supply and Demand: Workforce and Economic Benefits", can you briefly give us reasons to be optimistic about the marketplace driving innovation in the renewable energy realm?
Pruss: Look to the evidence: Every clean energy forecast by energy experts and governmental agencies like the Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency have grossly underestimated both the pace of the energy transition that is underway and the improvement in the economics of clean energy technologies. There is tremendous innovation everywhere — technology is improving rapidly for both energy production and energy management; business models and new market paradigms are evolving to accelerate clean energy penetration; and there is innovation in the regulatory sphere as well to facilitate the transition. Based on what we are seeing, I’m very optimistic.
Groundwork: Is it a forgone conclusion that China (and Germany?) will dominate the renewable energy technology sector in the 21st century, and leave the United States behind? What do we need to do to catch up? And how quickly?
Pruss: While it is true that experts with talent and competences in science, engineering and advanced manufacturing will follow investment and flow to the most dynamic markets, the U.S. has deeply embedded strengths and resources. I think of our 17 national laboratories as our crown jewels and the seat of the world’s energy related R&D and commercialization capacity. Our strengths are deep enough to endure, but there is a question as to how much the focus and mission of the DOE, EPA and national laboratories could move off center in the next four years.
Groundwork: What's your current mission, and how is that going?
Pruss: Well I’m trying to be more useful to the organizations that I’m affiliated with — especially Groundwork, FLOW, and the Michigan Climate Action Network. The energy transition is the only viable means of addressing the existential threat of climate change — so I will always be focused on that. I’m also continuing to work on trying to address issues common to both wind and solar developers and the communities that host large-scale clean energy projects.
Groundwork: Softball question: Skip, since the conference falls just after the Summer Solstice, what's your ideal way to spend the longest day of the year in northern Michigan?
Pruss: Easy — on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. I try to stay alert to the fact that the Great Lakes are a globally unique resource and how fortunate we are to live in a place surrounded by this magnificent natural endowment.