Investing in clean energy, from Washington, D.C., to Leelanau


Photo: Leelanau Energy (then Northport Energy) held a Solar Celebration during Earth Week 2019 with a tour of seven private solar installations in the Glen Arbor area.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

The U.S. Senate has passed its historic climate change legislation, and the House of Representatives is expected to soon follow suit and send to President Biden to sign the bill. The political victory comes not a moment too soon, with a rapidly warming planet striking communities with one climate-related disaster after another.

The “Inflation Act” will bring money to states, municipalities, and tribal governments to implement plans and programs to address climate change. With hundreds of billions of dollars to be allocated soon in the form of tax credits to steer consumers toward electrical vehicles and utilities toward renewable energy sources, Leelanau County, too, is enjoying the momentum of the clean energy movement.

Earlier this summer, Leelanau Energy launched its “Energize Leelanau Challenge” initiative to locate clean energy or energy efficiency projects in the county that are shovel-ready and that benefit communities, and help fund them with seed money totaling between $250 and $15,000 per project. Leelanau Energy, which was called Northport Energy until changing its name in 2020, has raised more than $30,000, thanks to contributions from Cherry Republic, Rotary Charities, and the Leelanau Township Community Foundation.

A dozen applicants have already applied. Those include Habitat for Humanity, which is building affordable homes in several Leelanau County locations, Homestretch Housing, and several local retail businesses.

According to project director Dan Worth, the challenge aspires to help fund and build momentum for local clean energy projects and support those who need financing the most, and spread the word about Leelanau Energy, its expanded countywide reach and its ultimate goal to power Leelanau County 100% by clean energy. In order to reach 100%, the County will have to invest in deep efficiency and conservation, solar, wind, and storage, said Worth. But all those opportunities are accelerating and coming down in cost, and can create many local jobs.

Anyone can apply, whether they are a nonprofit, a company, or a private landowner. But applicants launching a project that benefits the community will be given priority.

Worth recently launched Worth Energy. Prior to that he was the director of clean energy programs at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, where he helped push the municipality of Traverse City and the municipal utility, Traverse City Light & Power, to commit to renewable energy. In 2016, the Traverse City Commission set the goal of 2020 for all electricity needs for city operations to be sourced from renewable energy. In 2018, TC Light & Power committed to 100% renewable energy sources by 2040—the first utility in the state to do so.

“So many clean energy project ideas don’t happen because of some hurdle — and the big one is usually financing,” said Worth. “Giving folks funds to help them go solar works better than just telling them to do it! Beyond the money, we help with making connections to move projects forward.”

Worth hopes the local clean energy movement will create a snowball effect which leads to more projects and creates connections and synergies that bring costs down, keeps dollars local, and creates jobs. With federal money soon headed to communities across the nation, he hopes that other counties will replicate, and perhaps scale up, the Leelanau Energy model.

“We think this is a good way to bring the county together, with the Energize ‘Challenge’ being a challenge to all of us in the county to bring folks together to work on community projects and create success stories in these divided times.”

Green golf course and wastewater treatment plant in Northport

Before changing its name two years ago to Leelanau Energy, Northport Energy was recognized state-wide as a leader in the renewable energy movement. Its members were instrumental in the design and construction of the nation’s first 100% solar powered golf course—Northport Creek. They also played a central role in one of the nation’s first wind and solar powered wastewater treatment plants.

In addition to wind and solar projects, Northport Energy influenced state tax policy for solar-system owners, and local planning and zoning boards by advocating for renewable-friendly planning and zoning language.

“Clean, renewable energy is a powerful and necessary solution toward curbing our carbon emissions,” said board president Joe DeFors. “By expanding our mission and vision, we hope to increase our influence — and the advance of renewable energy — over the entire Leelanau Peninsula.”

Green jobs here, there, and across the political divide

Nationwide clean energy and clean transportation jobs grew by more than 5% in 2021, with electric vehicle manufacturing jobs leading the way and renewable energy regaining most of the jobs lost in the COVID-19 economic downturn. More than 3.2 million Americans were employed in renewable energy, energy efficiency, storage and grid modernization and clean fuels at the end of 2021, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Energy jobs data by E2, a national, nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors, and professionals from across several sectors of the economy.

Approximately 156,000 jobs were added across all clean energy and clean vehicle subsectors in 2021—more than half of all jobs added to the total energy sector. Clean energy and clean transportation now employ more than 40% of all energy workers in America. Two years after the COVID-19 economic downturn wiped out more than 600,000 clean energy jobs, nearly 75% of those jobs were regained.

Crucially, despite the nation’s political divide, of the top 10 states for clean energy jobs, half are red states and half are blue states. Some of the fastest-growing states for clean energy jobs are Republican-leaning states, according to E2’s “Clean Jobs America 2022” report.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s clean energy sector grew 20.4% in the second half of 2020, exceeding the state’s overall job growth rate in that period, according to the Clean Jobs Midwest 2021 report by Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs.