Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaks at a benefit in 2009. (Photo by Steven Depolo via Creative Commons)
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaks at a benefit in 2009. (Photo by Steven Depolo via Creative Commons)
Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaks at a benefit in 2009. (Photo by Steven Depolo via Creative Commons)

Grand Rapids, Michigan Mayor George Heartwell is counting down the days until he has to leave office: “419 days, seven hours and 20 minutes,” he smiled at the end of an interview last week.

But it’s not for a desire to leave — in a local election this month, voters approved term limits for citywide elected officials, leaving Heartwell as a lame duck in 2015. He will have served 12 years on the job.

Heartwell, 65, sat down with Midwest Energy News to talk about his time in the mayor’s office, a part-time job in a weak-mayor system that gives most policy control to a board of commissioners.

Yet Heartwell has elevated the city as a model for sustainability, renewable energy and energy efficiency. It includes an aggressive 100-percent renewable energy goal by 2020 (it’s at 25 percent now) and an entire city lighting system comprised of LEDs.

During his time in office, the United Nations recognized the city as a “Regional Center of Expertise in Education for Sustainable Development” (one of two in the U.S.) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named it the most sustainable city in the country in 2010.

Two years ago, the U.S. Conference of Mayors awarded Heartwell the organization’s “Climate Protection Award.” He is also one of 14 U.S. mayors appointed by President Obama to a climate change task force that will ultimately make policy recommendations to the president.

Heartwell has for years taken a “triple bottom line” approach to governing the city. 2015 will likely mark the end of his political career, all of which was in city of Grand Rapids politics.

“There is not another political job I’d want,” he said. “This is the best.”

Midwest Energy News: Where does your interest in sustainability and renewable energy come from?

Heartwell: We talk about sustainability as a room with three doors and each of us comes in from a different door. Most probably come through the door of environmental sustainability. Some come, especially business leaders, through an economic door. I came in through the social equity door. I’m an ordained minister, having worked with the homeless community here for 15 years. I have been an advocate for marginalized people of the community. That’s what brought me into sustainability, but once you’re in the room, you see how essential it is for all three of those bottom line elements to work together.

I also came into that room with a lifelong love of the outdoors as a fisherman and backpacker and canoer. I’ve spent my life outside in nature.

How do you avoid a term like “sustainability” from becoming a buzzword?

When I first started on the city commission, I saw how Total Quality Management began to evolve in businesses. Instead of looking solely at the economic bottom line and eliminating waste from either manufacturing processes or service delivery processes to make them more profitable, it began looking at the other two bottom lines. If their practices are responsible for deteriorating the environment or depleting natural resources, then they can’t have a sustainable business over the long haul. Or if their business practices hurt people, or if employment policies make it difficult for people to support their families, they can’t be a sustainable business over the long haul.

We made that transition from Total Quality Management to sustainability, but I think sustainability has real staying power as a discipline. We use sustainability planning in city government so every department has a responsibility for triple bottom line goals.

The city is more than halfway through its own sustainability plan. How is it doing in terms of achieving its goals as it relates to renewable energy, efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions?

With funding from the federal government [in the stimulus package], we used a portion of money to invest in a greenhouse gas emissions report for city government as well as Grand Rapids as a whole. We have a baseline — now it’s time to measure against that and see how much progress we’ve made.

Since that baseline, we’ve gone from 0 percent to 25 percent of power demand being satisfied by renewables. We know we have created efficiencies in our buildings through upgrading lighting technology, heating technology and replacing windows. Three firehouses use geothermal for a heating and cooling system. We’ve put rooftop solar on our first building.

Next year’s budget will have two more capital projects for rooftop solar. Eventually, city buildings will be energy producers, not just power consumers. That’s sort of a goal — wouldn’t it be nice if you could use your buildings that traditionally have been consumers of power and make them generators of power? Could you hit net zero, even go net positive on the renewable side, with technological improvements? I don’t think that’s impossible to imagine, do you?

Where does the city get its renewable energy?

Other than a few site-specific initiatives, we are a customer of Consumers Energy. We made a major purchase of green generation power from Consumers.

I’ve set a goal of 100 percent renewables by 2020, a very aggressive goal. We know we can’t get there simply by continuing to purchase green power from Consumers, we’ve got to generate our own.

We have a 5 MW solar project that just completed the preliminary design stage. That would be roughly 38 acres of ballast-mounted solar panels. Another RFP is being prepared for a biodigester at our wastewater treatment plant. We think we can generate a lot of the power demand at the site by capturing the methane and burning it to generate electrical power.

If you don’t set big goals, you don’t achieve big things.

Is 100 percent a realistic goal for cities the size of Grand Rapids, or all cities for that matter?

Of course it is. I think any city can get there eventually. The problem is, if you feel like you’ve got to be at 100 percent — in our case in six years — it may be so daunting that you never start.

I say to colleague mayors, “Start something. Start small. Put solar panels on your city hall building. Stick some money away and do a geothermal project on one of your buildings. Or simply buy the RECs or buy the power from your public utility and get certification that it’s green power. But start some place.” Once you get started, it actually feels pretty good.

Will you get there? Is it too early to tell?

It is too early to tell. Then we got the term limits ballot initiative passed and it becomes real clear now that I won’t be around to see it. I worry a little bit about a successor turning that around, but I don’t think that will happen. We have such a culture here in the city and city hall and the city generally, people are proud of what we’ve accomplished here in Grand Rapids. I don’t think anyone’s going to turn it around. Is it possible to achieve it by 2020? I don’t know, honestly, it’s going be a real stretch. The two projects I just described will probably get us to about 37 to 40 percent. But we have a long way to go.

We’ve also set aside funds to replace all of our streetlights with LEDs. That project will start the change-out next year. It’s $9 million project, but we’re going to change every head in town. LED technology now gives us the electricity savings we need. If you reduce overall consumption, it increases the percentage that represents renewables. You work at it from both an efficiency standpoint and a development standpoint.

With your vision and goals, do you think the governing structure has hindered your ability to accomplish those, as opposed to a strong-mayor system?

[Officials in a strong-mayor system] can do things simply by executive order that I can’t do. But I’m not convinced that we could have gone much faster. The city commission, which ultimately makes these decisions, has been on board for the most part since the beginning of my term here.

If we’ve been slower than I like, it’s not been because of either the policy elements or the internal practices, it’s been money. These things aren’t cheap. You’ve got to be prepared to invest. In Michigan, we’ve had a full decade of economic recession. Grand Rapids wasn’t immune to that.

It’s about resources and it’s also about a national policy that allows fossil fuels to remain deeply subsidized and cheap. If we were taxing carbon and using that tax to stimulate development of renewable resources, then there would be resources available to do what we would love to do and would be eager to do.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors this summer rejected giving its unanimous support for urging Congress to adopt a national cap and trade system. Do you object to cap and trade?

No, not at all. I prefer to see a carbon tax rather than cap and trade. I think that would be more effective. Cap and trade still allows the polluters to pollute, they just have to pay for it. I suppose a tax does too, but a tax can drive change. Gas at $2.82 right now is not going to drive the kind of behavioral changes that we need.

How do you measure the success of a place like Grand Rapids in the context of the global community and greenhouse gas emitters like China? At the end of the day, isn’t what you’re doing here just a tiny drop in the bucket?

Well of course it is. But when you realize how many drops are dripping into that bucket right now from all over the world. … Take the U.S. alone: The U.S. Mayor’s climate protection agreement has over 1,050 signatories of mayors like me who have committed to achieving the Kyoto standards within the Kyoto timeline. And so it’s happening, it’s working.

At the state and provincial level around the world, they have the luxury of being able to debate ad nauseum philosophical principals around climate change. We don’t have that luxury. We’ve got floods, we’ve got extreme heat events, we’ve got tornadoes. At the local level, mayors are saying, “We’ve got to do something about this and we will with or without support from federal, state or provincial governments.” That’s what gives me a measurement of encouragement. We’re not the only city in the world doing what we’re doing. There are thousands of them doing it and it’s got to make a difference, it’s bound to make a difference.

Cities around the country are preparing for climate change adaptation, but they’re not calling it that for political reasons. Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where we can call it what it is?

I think so. I do all the time, and I think local leaders have to be a little more courageous on that. The number of climate change deniers is smaller with each passing day and they are more marginalized with each passing day. I boldly and frequently talk about adaptation to climate change. The science is clear: It is a warmer planet that we live on and that climatologically means that shift is happening and we’ve got to deal with it.

If we’re not planning for [extreme weather events] and adapting our practices and infrastructures to accommodate those things, then shame on us as mayors, we are letting our people down.

With Gov. Rick Snyder’s re-election in Michigan, where do you see the state heading as its renewable portfolio standard ends next year?

I’m not totally discouraged. Governor Snyder has stated openly that he wants a renewable portfolio standard, he wants something beyond what we have now. The question is whether he can get that done within his own caucus. I think he’s more progressive on this matter than his caucus is, generally. And he needs the support of folks in business to stand with him and say, “This is our Republican governor and we believe that renewable energy is important for the state of Michigan.”

We’ve got (a renewable production) industry and we have a great opportunity to expand it. What warms a Republican’s heart more than business development, the potential for wealth creation through entrepreneurship and risk taking? We’re at this wonderful point right now when we could really see that take off in Michigan.

Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.