In December, Traverse City commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to power Traverse City’s municipal operations via 100 percent renewable energy by 2020 and initiate a long-term plan to transition the entire city to be carbon neutral by 2050.
That’s a big league move for our little city. It makes Traverse City only the third community in Michigan to set such a bold objective. Grand Rapids led the way in 2005 when it passed its 100 percent goal for city operations by 2025. Our neighbors in the village of Northport took similar action in 2013, but went further to set a 100 percent target for all electricity used by government, businesses, and residents.
It’s not the first time Traverse City’s leaders have made a move toward renewable energy. In 2010, Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P) set a goal of achieving 30 percent of its power supply from renewable energy. But the well-intentioned plan fell to pieces in the face of stiff opposition to TCL&P’s plan to build a biomass plant. The 30 percent goal was quickly abandoned and TCL&P’s leadership was overhauled with a new director, new board members, and a number of key staff positions.
One thing has not changed: A strong majority of local citizens want clean energy. A random sample survey of regional residents conducted as part of the Grand Vision planning process showed 65 percent of adults support solar projects in our region, and TCL&P’s ratepayers have consistently shown support for renewable energy.
So, what does the statement from the city commissioners mean? Renewable energy would provide electricity to power all of Traverse City’s municipal buildings, traffic lights, and the wastewater treatment plant, which amount to about four percent of the city’s total electric consumption. TCL&P already gets 11 percent of its power from renewable energy (much of which comes from the wind turbines south of Cadillac). This 100 percent commitment is designed to stimulate an additional 4 percent through new renewable energy projects. (Coincidentally, that would put TCL&P on course to achieve a new state mandate for all utilities to reach 15 percent renewable by 2021.)
Rather than biomass, which is specifically excluded from the new 100 percent city mandate, a cleaner source of renewable clean energy – the sun – could push TC forward. Yes, the cost and reliability of solar power makes it competitive with other forms of energy production. With more solar panels popping up on homes, businesses, and schools, it’s clear that this community is embracing solar as the top choice. Solar developers are moving quickly to meet this demand. Traverse City-based Heritage Sustainable Energy is negotiating with TCL&P on a one-megawatt solar project near the wind turbine on M-72. That would be a big first step forward, especially considering that only 10 megawatts are needed to achieve the 100 percent goal.
This is all good news for our local economy. Traverse City currently buys 43 percent of its electricity from coal and 37 percent from the open energy market, so a good portion of our monthly electric bills end up supporting coal plants downstate and ultimately mining operations from Wyoming to Appalachia. But the movement toward creating clean energy locally can shift that trend and create new jobs here in northwest Michigan.
Northwestern Michigan College offers an associates degree in renewable energy technology that for years has trained the workforce to fill these emerging positions. That program is likely to grow as more solar projects are proposed. Now that Traverse City has audaciously prioritized renewables and other communities in the region are showing interest in following suit, the likelihood of more local renewable energy jobs is real and the prospect of creating a clean energy economy is more promising than ever.
This column was originally published in the February edition of the Traverse City Business News.