Voices of 100%: Michigan City Sets Steady Pace to a Clean Electricity Goal — Episode 102 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 22 Apr 2020 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Many cities have already proven the possibility of 100% clean, renewable electricity. For those that are still working towards this goal, patience and persistence are one way to get there.

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Traverse City Light and Power board members Amy Shamroe and Tim Werner. Both are also city commissioners, with Shamroe serving as Mayor Pro Tem. Informed by their experience at the intersection between city government and a city-owned utility, the two describe how Traverse City set a goal of 100% renewable energy and how the utility plans to implement it.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Tim Werner But there’s still stretch goals, things you really going to have to work for cause you can get the community behind that. Then they feel like, hey, this is something like we’re going to work toward, but it’s not some huge burden, seemingly impossible type of thing, so find that balance.
Amy Shamroe This is a goal. They’re onboard for the goal, but because we are doing it in a way that’s not hitting them right in the wallet, we’re keeping them with us through the process and keeping them in mind the whole time.
John Farrell Located on the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, not far from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, the small town of Traverse City, Michigan has joined over 100 U.S. cities with its commitment to 100% renewable electricity. The city has already taken several strides toward its 2040 goal, and two members of the city’s power and light board, Amy Shamroe and Tim Werner joined me in February, 2020 to discuss why the goal was set and how they see the city achieving this ambitious goal. I’m John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this is our special Voices of 100 series focused on local leaders and their pursuit of 100% renewable energy. It’s all part of Local Energy Rules, a bi-weekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. Amy Shamroe is Mayor Pro Tem of Traverse city and on the light and power board. Amy, welcome to the program.
Amy Shamroe Thanks for having me.
John Farrell And I also to have with me Tim Werner, he’s a city commissioner and also one of the seven members of the city’s light and power board managing its municipal utility. Tim, welcome.
Tim Werner Thank you.
John Farrell So I wanted to start off with, a lot of cities now, over a hundred cities have made this kind of renewable energy commitment. And just to learn a little bit about what motivated folks in Traverse City to want to make this kind of commitment and when was it adopted? So I’ll throw that out, I don’t know who wants to take that question, but just curious kind of how things got started.
Amy Shamroe Well, I can kind of talk about the general consensus or the movement within the city, kind of more political engine. Tim did a lot of the work behind the scenes to bring a lot of the right people to the table and have the right groups involved to really look at the nitty gritty and the numbers and the, we don’t have all the how worked out but kind of more of the practical application. And so, um, you know, I was actually born and raised in Traverse City and ended up back here as an adult. And one of the things that’s kind of a, if anybody has been lucky enough to visit our city is we are on Grand Traverse Bay, which is part of Lake Michigan. And we just have a very beautiful natural environment. So one thing that unifies people in our area is the environment. Even if people on all sides of the political spectrum, but people make their money off of it through tourism, through things like fishing, through businesses that thrive and are set up to serve people in the summer when people come up here, we have people who are here because of the water and our environment. So it unifies a lot of people in a lot of different ways that you don’t see in many places.

So starting to talk about a hundred percent renewable goal, starting to talk about some of this more clean energy movement and more environmentally responsible ways to manage ourselves got more support here I think then you would see in a lot of places. It also helps, to be frank, that we are a city owned utility and that we service our rate payers and our shareholders, if you will, our residents and our residents do tend to be more progressive in the city itself is really a little blue dot in kind of a sea of red and purple. So ultimately we answered them. So when they were on board for something and they’re on board for it, it makes it a much smoother process than if we’re answering to shareholders and looking at stock prices. So all of that kind of comes together to make it a, it was a, I won’t say it was a smooth process, but it was, you didn’t have a lot of people protesting and you didn’t get a lot of people saying this is a really terrible idea. It was more a question of, okay, if you want to do this, how are you going to do this?

John Farrell I just want to ask you about that notion of a community owned utility, cause this has come up a lot in recent months, particularly in light of what’s been going on in California. You have all these wildfires that have bankrupted one of the largest investor-owned private utility companies in the country, and there’s been this big debate too, there are political candidates, presidential candidates talking about, you know, taking over power systems to do clean energy, to address climate change. It’s interesting to hear you talk about the importance of that community-owned utility. Do you think that it would have been as straightforward in terms of even making the commitment if you hadn’t had a utility that you thought could be responsive to the political process?
Tim Werner Yeah, I’ll jump in on that one. I think it’s because of the flexibility and the nimbleness that we have. We don’t always realize that, but we do have it because we are small for a small community and I think it’s a huge advantage to be able to answer directly to community members. I mean, you see them in your day to day life and so to make that relatively quick decisions, whereas if you’re answering to, you know, tens of millions of ratepayers, you know, a let’s say California utility, it is not going to have that flexibility and nimbleness. It can still happen, but it’s a huge effort and a huge lift and takes probably orders of magnitude more time to happen.
John Farrell So I had the pleasure of driving to Traverse City a couple of years ago. My family was camping out at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, so I can definitely appreciate what you mentioned, Amy, in terms of the environmental quality of the community. I also took some pictures of the wind turbine and the solar panels that you have near the community as I went by, because it’s the kind of nerdy thing that I do in my work, and those, a picture of that, a better picture of it that actually was hosted by your light and power board is actually on the front page of a report we recently put out about community owned utilities or community directed utility purchasing called community choice. It’s a policy available in other states and that has been used by a lot of communities to accelerate the progress toward renewable energy. So why don’t I talk about that just a little bit and ask you, you already have some renewable energy resources that I got to see is I drove through your community a couple of years ago. How has the process developed? What’s the thinking about how you get to this goal of 100% renewable electricity?
Amy Shamroe I’m going to actually let Tim field this one again. Only because there’s a reason he was the one who cut the ribbon on that solar array.
Tim Werner So partly it gets back to your first question that Amy was addressing is, you know, how did this all come to be? So politically Traverse City Commission I would say had more of a, a passion for moving this forward than the light and power board, say looking back five years ago to 10 years ago, that sort of thing. And so the city commission took the initiative, if you will, to move toward 100% and by that I mean that, uh, I lost track of time now maybe it was in 2016 fall of 2016 or so that the city commission passed a resolution wanting city facilities, if you will, to be 100% renewable energy for electricity. Because that was within our purview to say yes, that’s what we wanted and direct our city manager to help us make that happen. Because there was some frustration and a little friction between the city commission and the light power board, the city commission not feeling that the light and power board was sufficiently interested, if you will. So it took the initiative passed the resolution. Okay, now how do we actually achieve that? And I like to say back at the time that, because Amy and I wear both hats, but with the hat of the city commission on, we can just be naive politicians. We don’t have to know how it can be done or whether it will be done necessarily. We can just say this is what we want to happen, direct the city manager to make it happen. We don’t have to have it all figured out ahead of time.
Amy Shamroe He’s being a little modest here, Tim is an engineer, an electrical engineer, so it does help. I think when we’re wearing both hats, it can be a little bit of, as he’s saying, we can be a little passive on, we don’t have to know how it’s going to happen, but he is good at getting into the numbers to show that with feasible. Whereas I tend to, I think be the little bit more of the political one that talks about the will and the um, you know, media safe climate change. I just want to interject. You were being a little too modest, so go ahead.
Tim Werner [laughs] but then, quickly thereafter because we had passed it as a city commission and wanted to make some real progress to show the greater community that we were, that we were serious about it. We weren’t just making a declaration, the pat ourselves on the back, but wanted to make it happen. We did have the opportunity for the one megawatt solar array that you would have seen up on the hill on the edge of town and it was going to cost a premium. So we had some really good discussions about, well, how much are we willing to spend for that premium to get some renewable energy to have it located right on the edge of town. So it is highly visible. You got to see it. Others get to see it and associate it with Traverse City as opposed to paying for something that’s maybe 50 miles away, remote, nobody ever sees. So we saw a value in having it close by, you know, if you will, kind of a marketing thing, the speed with which it could be built. I think it was put up and that first summer because the developer was ready to go prior to us even having the resolution and there was value in that. So the value and the speed, value in the location, and that was very convincing. I think it ended up being unanimous support on the city commission to approve the expenditure to invest in that solar array. The one megawatt array that is up by the wind turbine. So that that’s really what kicked it off as the larger community. And then once Light and Power saw that the city commission was really gonna do this, and the larger community around Michigan and even outside of Michigan saw that, wow, this Traverse City place, they’re actually willing to spend money. It started to create its own market, if you will. You know, people started to show up saying, Hey, we’d want to develop some renewable energy. And so the conversation is just greatly elevated since that point.
John Farrell The one megawatt solar array, it sounds like really got things started. Do you have a plan now, or at least you know a sort of step-by-step, maybe you don’t know exactly how you get to 100% what that system looks like at that point. But I mean how close are you now in terms of renewable energy or renewable electricity and then how far do you still need to go?
Tim Werner Right, so the city actually achieved it just this past fall, late in the fall. We are using renewable energy credits as a bridge because we’re, through Light and Power, and I’m happy to say the city commission  and Light and Power board have a fantastic working relationship. Now, you know, it’s evolved over the past several years. Both groups are moving toward this a hundred percent renewable goals that we had, the one megawatt and that that got things going. But sorry to say we have RECs as a bridge because through Light and Power, the city proper has access to additional five megawatts of a much larger solar installation going in downstate in Michigan. But that won’t be online until 2021 so we have RECs as a bridge to that and that’s the last piece in the puzzle. And there are a lot of pieces in between that were worked on through Light and Power. So that the city, again for its, electricity needs is we can claim we are 100% renewable and now the Light and Power board and through its work in parallel, if you will, has added a two megawatt solar array up across the road from that one megawatt array as well as investing in a couple of downstate, we call it downstate over here in Michigan, but downstate solar projects, you know, that are on the order of a hundred megawatt project and we’re buying into a smaller part of that maybe eight to 10 megawatts on each. And so Light and Power has its goals of 40% renewable electricity by 2025 and then 100% by 2040 and so there are, there are pieces to the puzzle that are being put into place essentially, you know, every year. And we’re working toward those goals.
John Farrell You know, you mentioned that first megawatt was going to be at a premium. Is the Light and Power board finding that they still have to pay a little extra or is it the case now, as in so many other places around the country, where the solar that they’re buying into to reach this goal is actually competitive with what they’re paying for other sources?
Tim Werner No, it’s still a premium. And if that could change over time because it’s really compared to market rates, it is as far as uh, on an annual basis. The city as a customer of light and power, looks at, because we’re buying it from a third party who technically owns the one megawatt, but we’ve committed contractually to purchase all the electricity from it for the next 20 years. And so projections are that, I think it was seven or eight years out, that will probably flip or could flip, depends on a lot of factors as you’re well aware, price for natural gas, whether we ever get to carbon tax or all those sorts of things. But for the time being there still is a premium on an annual basis.
John Farrell I wanted to ask sort of back in terms of more like the political development of this process. Was there, a lot of what other communities are talking about is trying to figure out how this kind of goal can benefit everybody. So folks are using this term equity sometimes they’re talking about in terms of racial equity, when the conversation had with folks out in Providence, Rhode Island, they have a fairly large African American population and some other communities it’s been Native Americans are just focusing on like low income customers and making sure that they’re either held harmless or benefit from that. I was curious if there’s been any conversation about that in terms of, you know you’ve talked a little bit about paying a little premium for the renewable energy, but is there also some conversation about the benefits and how those will be shared or how to keep costs low?
Amy Shamroe I’ll step in on that one. So that’s always been kind of that the forefront of the conversation. While we are a very progressive community as I mentioned and people are very concerned about our environment, we are also a community with a lot of retirees of varying backgrounds. We are a mixed income community, so we do pride ourselves on having some of the lowest rates in the state of Michigan. I think we’re in like in the top 10 number. So in top 10 it makes it sound like we’re high, we’re, we’re some of the lowest in the state and, and that is something that I would credit our board, um, while we have a much better relationship with them, there are still a few people who have been on for probably two terms. A term is five years and have been through a lot of this process have gone from the kind of more we’d give electric, this is what we do, we have our contracts, we’re fine mentality of a board to transitioning to one that’s more, no, this is our community and we want it to be sustainable. And they’ve been a good bridge in that regard of saying, okay, yep, we’ll go along with this. I’m going to question that. But also let’s keep in mind the rates. And that’s not to say that we’re afraid of touching the rates at all. It’s that we don’t want to suddenly jump from being one of the lower rates in the State to middle or high even and surprising our customers. Because everything has a pressure point that it can’t sustain or go beyond. And I think around here that is rates are going to be one of those things that tempers us. I won’t say it holds us back, because I think as Tim has mentioned, we found some ways to do it already that haven’t broken the bank, we see the constant evolution of the technology that’s out there for green energy through batteries, through more efficient methods.

So I think we’re all looking into that. We’re investing in it. We’re, we’re even bringing in other experts from areas that have done a hundred percent renewables who see how they’re doing it and take notes that way as opposed to kind of go into the standard industry. People who are going to just talk about natural gas and, and think that’s good enough. So people I think are seeing that this is a goal, they’re onboard for the goal, but because we are doing it in a way that’s not hitting them right in the wallet, we’re keeping them with us through the process and keeping them in mind the whole time. So that hasn’t become too much of an issue. And we’ve, we’ve had open discussions that yes, this might affect your rate a little bit here and a little bit there, but the goal of the board is to definitely not make it a, well you have a choice. You can either have a lower electric bill or you can have green energy, but you can’t have both. We’re trying to be a model to allow people to have both.

Tim Werner Yeah, Amy’s spot on right there. In my mind, we’re essentially having our cake and eating it too. And that’s our earliest discussions at Light and Power about trying to move toward 100% renewable. We were very much in tune with not inflicting economic harm, if you will, to those that can least afford it. So that’s always been part of the conversation and we’ve been fortunate to be able to move this forward with you know, very low price points. So yes, that one megawatt on the edge of town for Traverse City proper is at a premium, but in the grand scheme of things, you know the multimillion dollar budgets for Light and Power, it’s in the noise and it has no effect on ratepayers.
John Farrell We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I ask if Amy and Tim are familiar with the few cities that have achieved their ambitious 100% goals, whether their city’s utility power contracts give them enough flexibility to go renewable, and I asked them what advice they have to other cities, large and small, aiming for 100% renewable power.
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John Farrell I just out of curiosity, have you talked to folks in Burlington, Vermont? I actually just did a podcast interview with them that we published a few weeks ago because they’ve gotten to 100% renewable electricity already and had a very engaging conversation with both the Mayor and someone from their Light and Power board who had helped implement. So it was really interesting cause that your story reminds me a lot of theirs in terms of the way that there was a lot of cooperation between city government and the municipal utility in terms of achieving that goal.
Amy Shamroe Funny you mentioned that, last meeting we just had someone come in and speak. Yeah, we had Gabrielle from the board come speak to Traverse City Light and Power because that has been one of the issues is so we’ve committed to this. There’s a lot of other places that are too, a lot of them though are, you know, California and Nevada, places where the sun really is there to support them. Not that they’re the only ones, but it’s so nice to talk to someone from Burlington because they’re a little more similar to us. We’re looking at the snow outside right now and kind of a gray day, and hearing how they did it, so it was a great to hear from somebody else who has done it and who moved in that direction. Now they did do bio-mass early on and that was something that Traverse City actually looked at. And while we are, we’ve just been talking about how pro-environment and forward thinking the community is, there was a massive debate in the community that was really divisive in the 90s about biomass. They wanted to build a biomass plant and people just were adamantly against it or people, you know, some people said this is the way of the future, adamantly against it. We ended up not going through with it. So there was kind of a bit of joking around, well if we’d done it, we’d be at our goal already. But it was good to talk to them to get more perspective on people who are doing, are doing it a natural way and trying to get there. A lot of times we do hear from people trying to tell us like, oh, you know, we get a lot of the industry people saying, well natural gas is a green energy or it’s –
Tim Werner Right, it’s a “clean fuel”
Amy Shamroe Yeah, exactly. Alternative fuel and so it’s, we’ve had a lot of trouble finding people who can even talk to us on the level that we’re at as far as, no, we want green renewable energy, not just something that isn’t oil. So that was talking to them. They’ve been a great leader on this and we really appreciate that they’ve come to us. I know they go to other communities and speak. We’ve also had Green Mountain come talk to us at some energy conferences, so the information is out there. I think what’s been interesting and perhaps even a little frustrating for those who are just starting into it or then thinking about venturing into it, is because every place is so unique. What composite works to get one place to 100% or to leap start them, isn’t necessarily going to work in another. Whether it’s the politics behind it, the practicality of the, you know, wind or solar or whatever else they might be looking at, hydro. Here we are on one of the biggest great lakes and we can’t really access hydro so there’s all kinds of factors that I think are out there, but it’s, we’re starting to see a community develop which makes all the difference in the world because when you feel like you’re out there on your own, you’re thinking, well, 20 years from now I’m sure we can hit a 2040 goal and the rubber starts hitting the road in about 2030 for us because I think our first coal plant that we have a contract with is due to go offline. Then we have two contracts that are still out there. One’s due to go off around 2030 and the other 2035 so we are kind of keenly aware of that and looking at who’s doing what and what information is out there to model after. So it’s, it’s nice to start seeing this open dialogue between cities.
John Farrell Yeah, I’m really glad you mentioned the contracts actually because this is one of the interesting sticking points that we’ve encountered in talking with communities that own their own utility, is that a lot of times they are on these very long-term contracts for power purchases and they don’t have a lot of flexibility. So like Rochester, Minnesota, for example, made a 100% commitment. That was oddly, their goal was 2031 and I remember when we dug into it, it was like, oh, that’s the year that they roll off the contracts for their municipal power agency and they’re able to buy their own stuff. And so it sounds like you’re in a similar position where you have to wait a little while for some of these things because you’re obligated to buy that power through a certain time.
Tim Werner Yeah, it does make for some very interesting conversations. And part of it, not, maybe it was last summer, we were having a conversation about this is, well, what can we do? Like even if we could break those contracts somehow legally, you know, put the attorneys on it. Are we making the world a better place? Like if those plants, if they’re just going to sell that electricity from coal to somebody else, that it’s cheap rate because we broke the contract so we can be renewable. Does that really make the world a better place? And so they’re excellent conversations as far as, you know, how do we move this forward and not just be our own little Island but be part of the world community if you will. I enjoy those conversations. They’re not necessarily always productive, but they are eye-opening and really get you to think about what’s going on.
Amy Shamroe Yeah. I would agree with that, but I would also say part of that conversation too that we had at the time was also if we break those contracts, how much does that put us on the hook for financially and going back into that rate payer question too. So the one, the only thing I would say though is indicative of beyond what the city is doing, local utilities are doing, is 10 years ago, Michigan was slated to have another, 10 12 years ago, another coal power plant built and the lack of interest from the main users of the two that exist forced the project to just stop in its tracks. So I think that’s an indicator too that, well municipals are leading on this. You know, I’m sure we’ve all seen that consumers and others have made energy goal pledges as well that are at least helping us to have more available and not putting the pressure on you. As Tim mentioned 10 years ago, we had a very different Light and Power board, we could’ve been saddled with yet another coal power contract that we weren’t going to be able to get out of. So there’s some long-term stuff out there, but I think that hopefully that’s starting to shrink out for everyone.
Tim Werner Great. And I guess I would like to tie it back in. Maybe you’re going to get to a question on it, but the question about Vermont and somebody from Burlington, part of what I appreciated and having somebody from Burlington come speak to the Light and Power board was an even bigger picture of reducing our carbon footprint in Traverse City. So getting more, elevating the conversation to be more than just electricity but also transportation and buildings, you know, heat especially there being in the Northern climate like we are, and so that gives me a little bit of solace thinking that while we might be tied to these coal contracts into 2035, that there are other opportunities that we can be working on in parallel such as transportation and building efficiency and heat.
John Farrell Yeah, absolutely. Well I was going to wrap up and just to ask, you know, you mentioned this already, Amy, I think you said that it’s sometimes frustrating because the solutions for 100% renewable that have been made by so many different communities are rather unique to that community. So I was wondering if you do have any advice for folks. One of the goals of this podcast is for communities that are thinking about a goal, for communities that have maybe made a goal and are thinking about, well, how do we get there? What should be thinking about? What should they keep front of mind in that conversation?
Amy Shamroe I would say that the first approach should be, how can we do this? Not should we do it or what’s out there right now? I think that it can be easy to get bogged down, especially when you’re saying community to 100% in saying, you know, well, the technology isn’t there yet. It’s not there yet, but chances are most utilities are kind of where we are, which is we’re there a bit, but we need to get it a little further. But how do we make that step? How do we set the tone? And so by doing this, we set the tone, not just for our current board, but boards that are coming forward behind us. So, you know, in five years, neither Tim or I might be on the board, but we still put that goal out there. That’s still something everybody’s working towards. They’re still getting the right information. So that would be the one thing I would say is don’t get caught up in either the how are we going to do it and getting fretful about what that’s going to look like in 10 years, 20 years. And also we have the opposite push to have, we’ll just say you want to be 100% by 2030 and knowing we had these coal plant things out there and other ties, just don’t let anybody pressure your organization, feel it out, feel it works for your community and where you’re comfortable putting that stake in the ground. Because I think it’s, it’s a very powerful thing and I don’t want to diminish that, but at the same time, it’s just like any other utility or work goal for a community which is making the decision to go forward in a certain direction. Now let’s figure out the steps to get there.

And you know, it goes to that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Well that applies to green energy as well. So get the goal out there, figure out what works for the community and then start taking the bite sized pieces off to get to that goal and talk to the right communities. There’s a growing field of them and I think we’re all happy to help as we all progress further. So it’s kind of our own little club right now. And although I have to say, I think within 10 years it’s not going to be a little club anymore. I think you are going to see the big players as part of it as well. So that’s ultimately only going to benefit all of us. So keeping all of that in mind, don’t be afraid of making the bold statement because there is the support and there are other people doing it to help you along the way and show that it’s not some pie in the sky dream. It’s going to be doable and all of us together and make it more probable that it will happen in a timely manner because there’s the demand now and that’s, that’s capitalism. So people, people think that these are sometimes, you know, 100% renewable goals or green energy is kind of frou-frou. But as we all know it’s an emerging industry and it’s got capitalism right behind it. So all of those factors I think are coming together right now and it’s a great time for people to start looking at goals like this and figuring out how they can do them.

John Farrell Tim, any advice from you?
Tim Werner Yeah, I guess, I mean it’s, it’s really just echoing what Amy said, but thinking back especially to Light and Power’s discussions, you know, trying to be responsible now for the long-term health of the utility. We had really good conversations about setting aspirational goals, you know, otherwise like why, why are we doing this if it’s not aspirational but at the same time making it not feel impossible. So finding that balance between what is clearly impossible and what’s the aspirational. So not setting a hundred percent renewable goal by next year or three years from now. So pick a realistic date, but there’s still stretch goals. Things you really are going to have to work for cause you can get the community behind that. Then they feel like, hey, this is something like we’re going to work toward, but it’s not some huge burden, seemingly impossible type of thing. So find that balance and you can really help keep the energy of those already interested in and get additional parts of your community behind it because it’s a, it’s the right thing to do.
John Farrell Well, thank you so much to both of you, Amy and Tim for joining me to talk about Traverse City’s goal and to give people a lot of context and flavor for how these kinds of decisions are made in their communities. I think there’s a lot of great advice in this entire conversation and I really appreciate you taking the time.
Amy Shamroe Thanks for having me.
Tim Werner Thanks for the opportunity.
John Farrell Thank you so much for listening to this episode of our Voices of 100% podcast series with Traverse city commissioners and members of the board overseeing the city’s publicly owned utility, Amy Shamroe and Tim Werner to learn about other cities pursuing 100% renewable energy. Check out over a dozen additional voices of 100% interviews, including leaders in Madison, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Ohio, or even a Abita Springs, Louisiana. Check out the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign page to see more cities and their clean energy goals. Back on the website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can also find the entire list of 100% cities on our community power map and click through an interactive community power toolkit for stories on how cities have advanced toward their goals. Tune back in to Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

“We’re a Little Blue Dot in a Sea of Red and Purple”

Traverse City is a town of 15,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan. Although the city committed to powering municipal operations with clean energy by 2020 in 2016, commissioners didn’t make the jump to a community-wide commitment until 2018. The city, and its municipal utility, are now committed to providing 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2040. It was the first Michigan city to commit to 100% renewable electricity community-wide.

Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe believes that the 100 percent goal, although city residents lean progressive, can be attributed to a local appreciation for the natural environment. As a key part of the economy, through tourism and industry, a mission to preserve Lake Michigan unifies the residents of Traverse City.

Photo credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As Shamroe describes, the process of making the commitment was not smooth. Still, there was not much protest. Residents of Traverse City understood why the commission wanted to make a commitment, but the question remained, how would they reach their goal?

The City Commission Leads the Way

When the city commission passed its first 100% resolution in 2016, for city facilities, it acted autonomously. As Shamroe and Werner describe, there was some tension between the city and the Light and Power board. The city wanted to move forward, regardless of where the utility stood on the issue. Werner describes the city’s plan as naive:

With the hat of the city commission on, we can just be naive politicians. We don’t have to know how it can be done or whether it will be done necessarily, we can just say this is what we want to happen.

– Tim Werner

Shamroe waters down Werner’s statement. As an engineer, says Shamroe, Werner was never naive about the goal’s implementation. However, since city facilities are only a fraction of energy use within Traverse City, the goal was within reach. 

Traverse City had the opportunity to purchase the energy from a one megawatt solar array. The energy would come at a premium, but it would be built on the edge of town. The visibility was a selling point, says Werner. Plus, the developers were able to build it right away. The City Commission unanimously approved the purchase of energy from the array.

Partnering with a City-Owned Utility

Werner says that there is a “flexibility and nimbleness” to a small, city-owned utility. These characteristics will help the transition to clean energy — a fact made apparent by some of the cities that have already achieved their 100% renewable goals, like Burlington, Vt. and Georgetown, Texas. Both cities own their utility companies.

Shamroe says that Traverse City has taken some inspiration from Burlington, because it has achieved its goal in a similar climate zone. However, even with their similarities, varying political and environmental climates mean that every city has a unique path to 100 percent. Each community is different and has its own needs.

Our shareholders, if you will, are our residents… ultimately, we answer to them

– Amy Shamroe

Sharing the Benefits, While Keeping Costs Low

Shamroe is proud that Traverse City Light and Power offers one of the lowest electricity rates in the state of Michigan. Although the board of the utility is evolving, she and the other members maintain a focus on affordable rates. She does not want residents to have to choose between clean energy and low energy prices.

People are seeing that this is a goal, they’re on board for the goal. Because we are doing it in a way that’s not hitting them right in the wallet, we’re keeping them with us through the process and keeping them in mind the whole time.

– Amy Shamroe

How Much Progress has the City Made?

Traverse City’s original goal was to power city operations with 100% renewable energy by 2020. With the help of purchased renewable energy credits, the city is technically there. Werner thinks of the purchased credits as a bridge, because the city plans to generate more renewable energy itself. 

Werner says that the city is still paying a premium for the one megawatt solar project. Depending how the market rate for energy changes, the megawatt of solar could save the city money in the future.

So yes, that 1 megawatt on the edge of town for traverse city proper is at a premium, but in the grand scheme of things, the multimillion dollar budget for light and power, it’s in the noise and it has no effect on rate payers.

– Tim Werner

The cost of renewables is not the problem. Rather, Traverse City is stuck in some long-term coal contracts that are keeping it from its goal. The city has considered breaking the contracts, but Shamroe fears it will be too costly for ratepayers. The longer of the two contracts expires in 2035, which is why the city set 2040 as the year to reach 100% clean electricity.

Even if we could break those contracts somehow… If they’re just going to sell that electricity from coal to somebody else at a cheap rate because we broke the contract so we can be renewable, does that really make the world a better place?

– Tim Werner

See Traverse City’s 1 MW solar panel on the cover of our community choice energy report:

Final Words of Wisdom

When Farrell asks the interviewees for their advice, Shamroe says to not get too bogged down in the “how.” If a city wants to run on clean energy, it is important to set the tone by setting a goal.

It’s not some pie in the sky dream. It’s going to be doable, and all of us together make it more probable that it will happen in a timely manner, because there’s demand now —  and that’s capitalism.

– Amy Shamroe

Werner’s advice to other city leaders is to set goals that are aspirational, but not impossible.

Pick a realistic date, but there’s still stretch goals. Things you really are going to have to work for — cause you can get the community behind that. Then they feel like, hey, this is something we are going to work toward, but it’s not some huge burden.

– Tim Werner

Episode  Notes

See these ILSR resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 20th episode of our special  Voices of 100%series, and episode 102 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: XTRAICE Synthetic Ice Rinks via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.