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Ten percent of Michigan’s power will come from renewable sources by the end of this year. For a small community in the western tip of the state’s lower peninsula, though, that’s not enough.
A group of residents in Leelanau Township, which includes the village of Northport, are finalizing a goal of becoming a 100 percent clean energy community. A Renewable Energy Community Plan for the area, which has a total population of about 2,000, is meant to be a template for other small towns to use.
The community is already on its way toward the 100 percent goal, with a previously constructed community wind turbine that helps power a local wastewater treatment plant. There’s also the Northport Creek Golf Course, dubbed as the first solar powered golf course in the country. Other solar energy systems are planned for local agricultural operations, wineries and government facilities.
A team of graduate students from the University of Michigan chose to help the community develop the plan. Leelanau-Northport won the help after competing with dozens of other hopefuls at a university symposium.
The students are working with the Northport Energy Action Taskforce, a local nonprofit known as NEAT, that was started seven years ago by area residents.
“We are at the community level … I strongly believe that’s the only way we’re going to move our renewable energy trajectory,” said Doug McInnis, NEAT’s president and a retired engineer and accountant. “It’s just a little frustrating when you start waiting for state and federal action.”
McInnis hopes Leelanau and Northport will be an inspiration to other small towns across Michigan and the U.S.
‘A pretty audacious project’
Jeremy Good, a master’s student at U of M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, is on a team with five other students who are helping draft the Renewable Energy Community Plan.
“It was sort of a unique thing, where these guys — not all guys, but mostly guys — were spearheading a pretty audacious project,” Good said as to why the team chose to work with NEAT and Leelanau-Northport.
The U of M team started in May 2014, and hopes to wrap up its work by April, presenting the plan to the community soon after. The students held two community events in 2014 to educate the public about renewable energy and gather input on the plan, drawing a total of about 100 people.
“A small group, but interested people,” Good recalls.
More than 2,000 surveys also were mailed to every homeowner in the township, using a local government database.
The survey received a “very solid” response of 33 percent, Good said. A total of 71 percent of those who responded by mail or online said they were “somewhat supportive” or “very supportive” of the renewable energy goal.
As stated in the survey:
“NEAT’s goal is to locally generate 100 percent of the energy used in Leelanau Township from renewable sources. While there are no definitive plans — or a deadline — to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, NEAT seeks to develop a voluntary community renewable energy plan with input and involvement from local residents.
“The purpose of the plan would be to increase renewable energy sources in Leelanau Township while reducing the use of fossil fuels. For example, the plan might encourage the installation of solar panels on municipal buildings or adding wind turbines within the Township. Community members could help meet the goal by choosing to install solar panels on their homes and taking steps to reduce energy use.”
Some people are against the idea, McInnis acknowledges.
“There’s always the element that is concerned about change,” he said. “They kind of want to keep things ‘as is.’ We’re very sensitive to that … There are people who don’t want the shorelines or skylines to have some obtrusive structure” like a wind turbine. “That’s one neat thing about solar panels. They can be tucked in all kinds of places.”
Still, Good notes that 61 percent of those surveyed said they had a “favorable” opinion of the existing turbine at the wastewater treatment plant. And 25 percent of those surveyed weren’t even aware of it.
“So it’s not upsetting too many people’s viewshed …” he said. “That said to me that wind is a possibility. It just has to be chosen carefully in terms of siting.”
‘Start doing something’
The U of M team’s goal is to come up with a handful of scenarios, laying out how the township and village can achieve 100 percent renewable energy through a mix of solar, wind and energy efficiency measures. Due to the short time frame for developing the plan, the focus has been on electricity. Leelanau and Northport use about 30 million kilowatt hours annually.
Good says he thinks going 100 percent is achievable for Leelanau-Northport. It’s just a matter of time. Electricity rates, and state and federal policies will affect how long it takes.
McInnis, from NEAT, believes the 100 percent mark can be met in 10 years for his community. Michigan’s 10 percent by 2015 renewable energy standard was signed into law in 2008 and is poised to hit the target by the end of this year.
One example of a community that has already achieved 100 percent renewable energy is Burlington, Vermont, with a population of about 42,000, where Good studied as an undergraduate.
According to go100percent.org, which tracks community renewable energy projects around the world, Leelanau-Northport is one of about 20 U.S. communities working on an all-renewable goal.
“I think it’s doable,” Good said. “The village and the township are definitely going to have to get behind it. People are going to have to see this as being part of their community identity.
“From a cost perspective, particularly if people can figure out the financing part, I feel like the technology and the resources are more than adequate for that location.”
One way around financing – the upfront cost of installing a new solar system on a homeowner’s roof, for instance – would be a community solar project. A large array of panels could be installed, and people could “buy in” to own a portion of the project, Good notes.
NEAT started out as a “men’s group” that met regularly to talk about current issues, McInnis recalls. “Finally, we just said to ourselves … ‘When are you going to stop talking about it and start doing something?’”
The area of Leelanau Township and the village of Northport is a popular tourist spot. The area is famous for its cherry industry. Many residents, and those involved with the 100 percent project, are retirees, along with “summertime people” who live elsewhere in the winter, McInnis notes.
“But that hasn’t deterred the effort by any means,” he said. “The people — whether they’re here half the time or full-time — they love the area. They love the people. It’s definitely a community.”
McInnis has a geothermal unit at his 2,300-square-foot home, used for heating and cooling. There also are 32 solar panels on his roof, which he says are meeting about half of his and his wife’s electricity needs.
Seeking help from the University of Michigan grad students was the idea of Stanley “Skip” Pruss.
Pruss, former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth until August 2010, moved to Leelanau Township about two years ago. He planted the seed for NEAT to pitch its 100 percent idea at the U of M symposium.
“The reality is that solar’s at a price point where it’s absolutely becoming economical,” said Pruss, co-founder of 5 Lakes Energy, a Michigan-based consulting firm. “The return for systems is six to seven years.”
He cites the Lansing Board of Water and Light, which was recently able to procure solar energy for $65 per megawatt hour, compared to costs of $66 for natural gas and $133 using a new coal-fired power plant.
“There’s a lot of interest and a lot of excitement here,” Pruss said. “We have a lot of evangelical clean energy activists in the community.”
What makes Leelanau Township special? Why do local leaders think 100 percent can be achieved?
McInnis, from NEAT, has another acronym as an answer: PETS, for Political, Economics, Technical and Society. All of these attributes are in place, he says.
“Political means you need local government and rules and regulations; when we start talking about the cost, solar energy is very economical; we have the technology — we know the technology regarding solar, wind and biomass; and society understands that we need renewable energy, that we’ve got a climate problem and we’ve got to reduce our greenhouse gases.”
Jeff Kart is a longtime environmental writer and former journalist in the Great Lakes region, and principal of Enviroprose consulting. He lives in Bay City, Michigan.