Tom Karas: Dreams So Real

February 4, 2009 | |

A community group in Dyfi Valley, Wales is so pleased with the profits from its first wind turbine that it is now making plans to build a second one.

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead

That quote will never wear out its welcome with me, particularly when I meet people like Jared Volz and Liana May. The two have started a small group that intends to change an empire—or at least a town named Empire, about 20 miles east of Traverse City, on the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Last week Jared and Liana held the second meeting of the Empire Renewable Energy Committee at the Glen Lake Community Library in Empire. Twenty-two residents (and a couple “outsiders”) breezed through a well-thought-out agenda that started with standard meeting fare like approving minutes and hearing reports, moved on to fundraising and appointing a liaison to the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore (which pretty much surrounds the town), and then honed in on the good stuff—the group’s bold collective dream.

That dream, which is of energy independence, and which prompted Liana to contact Jared and get the ball rolling, made the meeting feel more like a multi-generational gathering than a bureaucratic exercise. Together, they weaved that dream into a vision statement.

And it’s a doozy: “To provide Empire with 100% sustainable energy, locally owned and produced in a thoughtful and creative way.”

Fortunately, another good old saying is also still true: Timing is everything.

As it turns out, never in the state’s history has there been a better time for dreams of clean, sustainable energy, owned and operated by groups of neighbors and friends, to become real.


Well, demand for fossil fuels is rising. Supplies of fossil fuels are declining. Big fossil fuel price increases have occurred, and more are on the way for conventional energy sources, particularly new coal-fired power plants. And there’s this renewed sense of possibility that many citizens have about clean energy—a sense so pervasive that even a small village bands together and puts some neighborly Yankee ingenuity to work on i.

More good timing: As it turns out, there’s another, separate group of residents from Northport, about 25 miles north of Empire, who started down the same clean energy path within months of EREC’s launch. The two groups found each other; now they are looking for their synergies.

As EREC considers next steps, its members are starting with a pragmatic one—tabulating the energy their town is already using. The group wants to work with the village government, which is conducting a survey in coming months, to find out. That will help the group figure out how much power—and money—can be saved by implementing what is always green energy’s first step: efficiency measures.

Watching these two Leelanau County communities figure it all out will be educational for the state, which is only now starting to install the kinds of policies, tax incentives, and more that can make these dreams into realities. I promise to keep you posted.

Or, follow the dreams yourself. Liana, Jared, and friends are posting them at

Tom Karas founding the Michigan Energy Alternatives Project. Reach him at [email protected].


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