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Grand Rapids Tells Lansing: Yes We Can

Mayor’s 100% green energy goal underlines state’s inaction

March 11, 2008 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

City of Grand Rapids
  Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell has pushed his city to “go green.” Last year it won United Nations recognition as a sustainability “Center of Expertise.”

GRAND RAPIDS—Michigan's own Henry Ford generated amazing wealth innovating and mass marketing the automobile. But his fortune was an anthill compared to the mountain of money John D. Rockefeller made in the oil business. And therein lies the story of why Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell is staking out what just might be the most aggressive alternative energy platform of any public official in the United States.

Probably the biggest economic opportunity facing Michigan these days is energy innovation. Making components for wind turbines, solar panels, and other equipment that generates electricity without burning fossil fuel is already proven to be the most effective short-term strategy to prop up the state's struggling manufacturers, create jobs for unemployed factory workers, and stimulate new investment and revenues in local communities.

That strategy can serve an incredibly large, new global market for new technologies and services that keep energy rates affordable, the climate stable, and the world at peace. Mayor Heartwell sees that as a huge opportunity that Michigan cannot afford to miss.

"The greatest fortunes that America has ever known were made in energy," Mayor Heartwell recently told a convention of energy entrepreneurs on the campus of Michigan State University. "The geniuses who invent the formulas to more efficiently capture the energy of the wind, the water, and the sunlight will not only provide enormous good for the world. They will be rewarded handsomely for having done it."

To help inspire that breakthrough advance, Mr. Heartwell is promoting a breakthrough policy. He’s called on his city to completely eliminate its reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels like coal and, instead, power up with 100 percent renewable energy. If local government demands an increasing amount of wind, solar, and other "clean energies", the mayor says, residential consumers, industry, and others will follow. That will drive innovation. And that will accelerate the region's staggeringly slow transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age.

It’s the most aggressive alternative energy goal set by any elected leader in the Great Lakes region, likely the United States, and possibly the world. It’s certainly the most ambitious thinking in Michigan, where state leaders have talked about the urgent economic and environmental need to embrace energy innovation for years, but have yet to do much to stimulate growth in the multi-billion-dollar renewable energy industry.

In fact, the state’s current policies and laws so favor nuclear- and fossil-fueled energy that traditional energy companies are now proposing to build or expand at least seven coal-fired power plants in Michigan.

So Mayor Heartwell’s proposal could turn heads in Lansing, where neither the Granholm administration or state lawmakers have pushed back on the state’s "coal rush" or successfully pushed through bills that would accelerate alternative energy development in Michigan. Those proposals are currently tied to a bill that would prevent customers of the state’s largest utilities from buying power elsewhere if, as most energy experts predict, the cost of the proposed new coal projects cause rates to soar.

"This is where we say, 'Boo!'" Mayor Heartwell said. "Granted, our technology today for coal-produced electricity is superior to what was available when the existing plants were built. But coal is still a nonrenewable fuel, and the burning of it has adverse economic and environmental impacts."

Green Grassroots Challenges Leaders
Michigan's coal rush comes amidst a growing grassroots clamor for a modern energy agenda. Once-seemingly unrelated concerns about pollution, electric rates, education, national security, and economic competitiveness have converged in an increasingly popular and powerful push to find smarter alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas.

From the Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Lakers School system in the Thumb to the Benzie County Central Schools in the pinky, for example, administrators, teachers, and students are exploring the potential for wind turbines to reduce energy costs and improve math and science learning. Neighborhoods like Belknap Hill, in Grand Rapids, and cities like Wyandotte, near Detroit, are evaluating the breeze and studying bird migration patterns to gauge the practicality of building major wind turbines. And a parade of entrepreneurs and manufacturers across the state are now retooling factories and retraining workers in an effort to capture at least a share of what's already a $71 billion global renewable energy business.

Strangely, though, lawmakers and lobbyists in Lansing remain hesitant to join the movement and ratify bold goals, although there's no shortage of posturing on the issue.

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, for instance, says the state should generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. One proposal in the state House of Representatives calls for a goal of 20 percent by 2020. Another in the Senate calls for 7 percent by 2015. The strength of state policy is key, renewable energy proponents say, because it assures investors there's a measurable and guaranteed market for renewable power.

But there's little substantive action. An entrenched group of skeptics argue that swift action to diversify the state's energy portfolio with renewable sources threatens to jack up electricity rates, kill jobs, and hamper the ability to compete for new companies. That message has gained considerable traction in the Capitol and remains the primary philosophical barrier to change.

"We want to put Michigan in an aggressive position," Representative David Palsrok, a Republican from Manistee, recently told members of the Northwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum in Traverse City. "We have the manufacturing base to make this [renewable energy equipment]. We have the know-how. We have the universities. This presents a great opportunity for Michigan. So we do want to be a leader.

"At the same time we have to be mindful of the costs," added Mr. Palsrok, who sits on the House Energy and Technology Committee. "We don’t want to adversely affect Michigan's rates."

West Michigan’s New Frontier
But the economic, environmental, and social costs of traditional, coal-generated electricity in Michigan already are too high, according to leaders like Mayor Heartwell. The process withdraws incredible amounts of water from the Great Lakes, he says, fouls the air people breathe, loads greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and drops toxic materials like mercury into waterways. What's more, Michigan sends billions of dollars out of the state each year to import the black fuel because, unlike wind, the state doesn’t have its own supply.

Three years ago, in his 2005 State of the City Address, Heartwell committed his city to reducing these costs. He declared his government would secure 20 percent of its municipal power from renewable sources by 2008. The city achieved the goal nearly one year ahead of schedule, largely by purchasing green power from Consumers Energy. But the city worked the other side of the equation, too, reducing municipal energy consumption by 10 percent and inserting energy-efficient building standards into the city's zoning code. The city even introduced hybrid busses to its transit agency’s regional bus fleet.

Today, Grand Rapids’ success belies worries like Mr. Palsrock’s about the costs of ramping up an aggressive renewable energy agenda: The region stands out as perhaps the most attractive and economically competitive in Michigan.

In his 2008 State of the City Address, Mayor Heartwell set a new goal for his city, one designed specifically to stimulate the production of more green power. Saying there's no reason why local government should not satisfy its entire electricity demand with renewable power, he announced a pilot program to test small-scale wind turbines on bridges, rooftops, and riverbanks. Cascade Engineering, a reputable local firm, likely will lead the effort.

"Sustainable energy is the new frontier," Mr. Heartwell said. "Accomplishing this goal is good for the environment, good for the health of our citizens and future generations, and good for the West Michigan economy as we create demand for new and innovative technologies."

"The investments that we make in growing this economic sector over the next several decades will be wealth producing for investors and workers alike," he added.

Andy Guy is a journalist and project director at the Michigan Land Use Institute. He is also managing editor at Rapid Growth Media. He blogs at Great Lakes Guy. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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