Energy Fair Looks at Sunny Side
Big crowds came to beat “oil addiction,” save money and environment
June 23, 2006 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Displays by dozens of alternative energy companies helped to attract thousands of people to last weekend’s Michigan Energy Fair.
ONEKAMA—In 1988, when Jim Sluyter and Jo Meller built their cozy, four-room home on a wooded hillside overlooking Lake Michigan, and then decided to power it with electricity from a wind turbine and photovoltaic panels, their idea was still novel in northern Michigan. Only a dozen other families in the region had even tried living “off the grid.”
Not any longer. Roughly 150 families now power their homes with renewable energy in the five-county Grand Traverse region, according to authorities. And last weekend Mr. Sluyter, who is 56, and Ms. Meller, his 51-year-old wife, opened their doors to some 50 visitors and showed them the inverters, batteries, meters, photovoltaic panels, and wind turbine that generate their electricity. Their setup manufactures enough power to irrigate their farm, which feeds 25 families, and run a household that includes most modern appliances.
The visitors were on a tour organized by last weekend’s Michigan Energy Fair, one of the most comprehensive expositions of renewable energy generating equipment, home and business energy efficiency techniques, and technical workshops in the state. More than 2,500 people—home owners, business executives, farmers, political leaders, and entrepreneurs—attended the three-day event, which was held at the Manistee County Fairgrounds, located in this tiny lakeside community.
“There were so many Priuses in the parking lot in every color they make,” said Ms. Meller, who recently bought a tan version of Toyota’s popular, high-mileage, hybrid car. “It was wonderful.”
Indeed, the idea of using energy efficiently and generating it from sources more environmentally friendly than coal, oil, and nuclear power is more popular now than at any time since the mid-1970s, when the Arab oil embargo triggered high prices and long lines at the gas pumps.
The Michigan Energy Fair, which arose out of a successful citizen campaign two years ago to halt a proposed coal-powered generating plant in nearby Manistee, occurred in the midst of new national interest in breaking what President George W. Bush called “an addiction” to foreign oil. Many of the tools and much of the advice dispensed by 66 vendors and in 54 workshops over the weekend reinforced what President Bush said in the State of the Union address in January.
“Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy,” said the president, who proposed increasing the federal investment in energy research in order to replace 75 percent of Middle East oil imports by 2025 with other energy sources. “We have a serious problem. America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”
Big Market, Crying Need
David Konkle, who coordinates Ann Arbor’s energy office, echoed some of those themes during a keynote speech at the fair on Saturday. Ann Arbor’s goal, he said, is to either draw or generate 30 percent of the city’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2010. Mr. Konkle has successfully implemented green building techniques and installed solar panels in Ann Arbor’s public library, the Veteran’s Hospital, and the public swimming pool. The city’s energy-conserving practices, said Mr. Konkle, has saved it more than $5 million over the last 18 years—and attracted attention from municipal leaders and residents elsewhere.
“You hit them in the pocketbooks and then they start noticing things,” Mr. Konkle said.
There are lots of things to notice. One is that the United States uses 20 million barrels of oil a day, mostly for transportation, and imports 62 percent of it, at a cost of nearly $300 billion annually. Another is that 91 percent of the nation’s electrical energy comes from either nuclear power or burning fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil, according to the United States Department of Energy. That leaves just 9 percent generated from renewable sources: 6.4 percent from hydroelectric dams and 2.7 percent from wind and solar power.
The environmental, public health, national security, and economic consequences of burning so much fossil fuel are now beginning to attract enough social and political prominence to actually alter the nation’s priorities. Experts say that is largely because environmentally sound generating technologies are now doing well in the marketplace.
Wind power is rising particularly quickly. Last year, the federal Department of Energy announced a new goal: generating 6 percent of the nation’s electricity from wind by 2020—more than double the current figure.
Mr. Konkle applauded the fact that wind power is finally gaining traction in Michigan. He reminded the audience that the state is highly vulnerable to energy prices and supply problems because it imports all of the coal, 96 percent of the oil, and 75 percent of the natural gas its residents use. That pollutes the air and water and drains billions of dollars from the state’s economy.
Another solution, he asserted, lies within the state’s $4 billion-a-year farm sector. Farmers are very interested in placing wind turbines on their property and growing plants that can be converted into ethanol and other alternative fuels.
“Michigan does not have oil and we don’t have coal, but we sure can grow things,” Mr. Konkle said.
Another speaker, the Michigan Public Service Commission’s Tom Stanton, pointed out that in 2002 the state Legislature approved the Michigan Renewable Energy Program to promote solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass production. Mr. Stanton reminded the audience that utility customers can now sell their homegrown energy back to their electric company.
But he also said that Michigan is well behind such states as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, which strongly encourage renewable energy through property tax exemptions and other market incentives.
Penny Save, Penny Earned
Workshops on cheaper auto fuels like bio-diesel and saving money through energy conservation—the crucial other side of sustainable energy production—drew good crowds.
Bio-diesel fuel, made from vegetable oil and recycled fast-food deep fryer oil—and popularized by Willie Nelson, whose touring bus famously uses it—attracted notice. Mr. Nelson’s bus didn’t make it to the fair, but several other bio-powered vehicles did, including the bus that took people on the tour to the Sluyter-Meller's Five Springs Farm. But cheap does not always mean popular: Despite bio-diesel’s low costs, it has yet to catch on in the mainstream.
But energy conservation is definitely catching on, spurred by the high heating bills most fair goers had to pay this past winter.
Daniel D. Chiras, an author and environmental science professor at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, told a rapt audience that the nation should quadruple public and private investments in energy efficiency. Mr. Chiras said hybrid vehicles manufactured by Toyota, Honda, Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, Lexus, and Mercury are becoming very popular. Two years ago, Americans purchased just 47,000 hybrids; last year, that number rocketed to 200,000—1.2 percent of U.S. cars sales. By 2010, according to market research firms, sales of hybrid vehicles will rise to 1 million units annually.
Mr. Chiras also described the energy savings that “green” housing can accomplish. He spoke of his own state-of-the-art, rammed-earth, tire-and-straw-bale home in Colorado, complete with solar panels and a wind generator. His said his annual gas bill is less than $10 a month, and most of that represents the cost of reading his meter.
But Mr. Chiras was less enthusiastic about ethanol, a long-touted alternative fuel that, after a long hiatus, is reemerging as a way to kick the country’s oil addiction.
Ethanol is a hot topic again because Detroit automakers are pushing it as a solution to high gasoline costs and environmental concerns: The several million “flex-fuel” vehicles the Big 3 have sold in recent years are ethanol-ready. Just last week, automakers and Michigan lawmakers urged President Bush to promote E85 fuel—a mixture of a little gasoline and a lot of distilled corn and grain.
But Dr. Chiras said that ethanol is not an ideal solution because corn growing requires large amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, and processing it into a useable fuel requires lots of energy. Using so much fossil fuel to produce an “alternative” fuel undermines the worthy national goal of reducing the country’s oil addiction, he said.
More to Come
The fair was organized by the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, a 15-year-old statewide group founded in Traverse City and now based in Dimondale, Michigan. The association’s goal for the event—whose $100,000 budget was supported by the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth, several utilities, the vendors, 25 private companies and non-profit organizations, and ticket sales—was to provide plenty of up-to-date information on alternative technologies, mixed with family fun.
A $7 daily ticket or a $12 weekend pass allowed patrons to browse a big merchant tent, where alternative-power businesses promoted their wind turbines and solar equipment. Patrons could also attend workshops staged in the smaller, blue and white tents; the sessions covered everything from “eco-villages” to instructions on generating power from methane. Besides Mr. Konkle, a number of business executives and city and state leaders delivered keynote speeches on energy policy and practices—including Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who said his administration’s goal is to make his city the state’s greenest.
Given such sizeable crowds in the face of Saturday’s scorching heat and Sunday’s downpours—and the enthusiasm that seemed to radiate from the big crowd—it seems as if the Michigan Energy Fair is a genuine hit.
“We are very pleased with how the fair went,” said Jennifer Malinowski, the fair’s program manager. “The community was so focused around it and so interested in it.”
Ben Buchwalter, a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, is reporting and writing for the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk this summer under a joint program sponsored by the college and the Institute. Reach him at email@example.com.