A Traverse City home gets efficiency upgrades thanks to the TC Saves program. (Photo courtesy MLUI)

Cone Drive Operations Inc., based in Traverse City, Michigan, makes and repairs precision gears for a variety of industries from defense to wind power.

But the company did not need to chop the air with even one wind turbine to save just as much energy as one would produce. For the past three years, Cone Drive has saved 560,000 kilowatt hours of power through energy efficiency improvements, according to the company.

“In efficiency vs. windmills, a windmill generates about 600,000 kilowatt hours a year,” said Pete Ostrowski, Cone Drive’s head of environmental health and safety. “So, this shows what one small business did as far as efficiency goes.”

But Cone Drive did not do it alone. The company used energy-efficiency rebates offered through the local utility, Traverse City Light and Power, along with a variety of other local incentives. In fact, this community’s unusual level of cooperation between government, local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits and homeowners in creating more energy-efficient buildings is becoming a model for the rest of the state.

Help for homeowners

One of those efforts, a program called TC Saves, recently won praise from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as a model for how to leverage various segments of the public and private sector to create energy-efficiency incentives. It provides homeowners a chance to cut their energy bills through weatherization and zero-percent financing on major efficiency improvements.

Brian Beauchamp, a policy specialist at the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, gave the governor the full rundown during a recent tour of a retrofitted home (MLUI is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News).

TC Saves, he said, is made possible by a U.S. Department of Energy program administered by the state energy office at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The program is financed by Michigan State University in coordination with the Clean Energy Coalition in Ann Arbor and also through the city of Traverse City with help of two local nonprofits — the Michigan Land Use Institute and SEEDS — and Traverse City Light and Power. Labor and materials are provided locally by James Anderson Builders and Brown Lumber.

Mike Powers, energy and environmental analyst for SEEDS, said the program has helped 200 homeowners achieve significant energy savings through more than $500,000 worth of work in two Traverse City neighborhoods.

“We have the potential to be a model throughout the region and the world of what’s possible,” Powers said at a recent Energy Efficiency Leadership Summit in Traverse City.

Efficiency no longer an afterthought

Indeed, Traverse City was the first place the statewide program, called Michigan Saves, went about two years ago when it first launched. Jeff Williams, Michigan Saves project director, said that by the end of June, the program will have financed 1,200 loans worth $10 million.

Until recently, though, this was a hard sell. Marc McKellar, director of business development for Members Credit Union in Traverse City, said his institution tried to interest homeowners in “green loans” about five years ago. But, with the housing slump, very few wanted to take out a loan on a quickly depreciating asset — their home — even with a really good rate.

Doug DeYoung, vice president of government relations and business advocacy at the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said energy efficiency is no longer an afterthought in the business world. The chamber recently launched a new $50,000 fund to provide short-term, low-interest loans for businesses that want to make energy efficiency improvements. Grand Traverse Industries, a local nonprofit employment training business, will be the first beneficiary of the chamber’s new Energy Efficiency Fund, with local energy consultants Keen Technical Solutions providing return-on-investment assessments of GTI’s energy-efficient lighting project.

DeYoung said the three-year loans of up to $10,000, at 3 percent interest, must show a three-year return on investment.

For the next phase, the nonprofits MLUI and SEEDS have completed a study on how much energy would be saved if the program expanded county-wide. According to the report, between $403,000 and $462,000 in investments into energy efficiency improvements to public buildings over 30 years would produce a savings of more than $1.8 million.

The report also said retrofitting half the county’s commercial buildings would save $6.6 million a year. That, said report co-author Barton Kirk, an energy and environmental analyst for SEEDS, would create 76 new jobs over 30 years.

“That’s 76 jobs sustained for three decades that would not exist if we continue with business as usual.”