Northport harnesses the green wave

Jim Landes, Tom Gallery, Doug McInnis and Steve Smiley are among the “Cracker Barrel Circle group” that formed the Northport Energy Group 10 years ago. Their work led to the installation of a wind turbine that provides power for the Northport Water Treatment Plant.

By Chris Loud

Sun contributor

Across Leelanau County and other northern Michigan cities and regions, renewable energy options are becoming more mainstream. When costs can be justified and contractual obstacles hurdled, while local cities and power companies set examples, much of the remaining battle is information. Finding community support and willingness to change can present major challenges.

At the tip of Leelanau Peninsula, the Northport Energy Group hopes to take on these challenges. Their task is to educate and progress the village and region towards renewable energy that can be sustainable and beneficial for the community, environmentally and financially. What started with some retired professionals seeking intellectual stimulation turned into a drive to steer the community in a greener direction.

 

Discussion to action

The Northport Energy Group is a nonprofit organization offering consultation and assistance to all levels of projects and interest involving renewable energy throughout Leelanau County. The group formed out of a regular local gathering of retired professionals called the Cracker Barrel Circle group. The group consisted of locals and transplants from a variety of professions who retired in Leelanau, but wanted to keep discussing matters of interest, and keep educating themselves.

Northport Energy Group is now celebrating its 10-year anniversary this fall. Representative and original Cracker Barrel Circle Group member Doug McInnis studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan, and worked in the space industry for 10 years. I didn’t ask him directly if he was literally a rocket scientist, but he did say he got “involved with rockets and missiles.” He reflected on the evolution from Cracker Barrel to Northport Energy, and how it was born out of that continued curiosity and education that stimulated their discussions.

I heard Steve Smiley talk about wind turbines at the Traverse City Economic Club. I thought he’d be a fun guy to invite to our circle.” Smiley came to the group and talked about renewable energy and his experience with wind turbines, having been involved with the turbine currently running on M-72 west of Traverse City. Smiley mentioned that the Northport area had a pretty good amount of wind, and the gears in the Cracker Barrel brains started to turn.

According to McInnis, founding member and resident “boot-in-the-butt” provider Mac Thomas suggested, “you guys always sit around and talk, why don’t you DO something?” With their powers combined, the group began to discuss and research the potential of wind energy in Northport. One of the first locations they explored was the wastewater treatment facility located at a high elevation. One of the members already had all the wind testing equipment needed to do an evaluation. Yet another advantage to having a group with varying experiences and interests.

After progressing through some of the necessary steps expedited by their combined expertise, before long a wind turbine was installed. It now provides a portion of the power needed to run the Northport Water Treatment Plant. With a taste of the process, the group wanted to set their goals even higher, and the Northport Energy Group was officially born in 2008.

Since then they have been a part of a handful of renewable energy projects in the area, including the Northport Creek Golf Course—the first net-zero course in Michigan, and one of the few in the entire country. The group also partnered with the village of Northport to install charging stations for electric vehicles, which are currently the only EV charging stations in northern Leelanau county.

 

Looking ahead

McInnis is optimistic about the level of interest in the area, and it’s not just a feeling. He spoke about an education and interest study program they did with University of Michigan graduate students in Leelanau Township. Along with the students they held two educational sessions in the area, open to the public, to help spread knowledge on the subject. They then surveyed everyone across the village of Northport and the township to measure their level of interest. With an incredibly high 30% response rate, the study showed that 70% of the people were interested in learning about, or taking part in renewable energy initiatives. “We really felt that was significant,” said McInnis. “To know that a portion of our community, which we feel would be fairly representative of the rest of the county, would be interested. That was a spark of hope. So we’re not just beating our heads against the wall.”

 

Interest to feasibility

While some of the obstacles facing communities and individuals that lie in the way of renewable energy progression can seem insurmountable, McInnis and Northport Energy Group have outlined relatively clear cut ways for the chips to fall into place, and to make renewable energy more accessible and financially efficient in the area. The group has broken down into committees that tackle some of these issues.

One committee is focused on staying current with public policy, and advocating for small businesses and individuals who might be affected by changes in renewable energy policy, or lack of policy. One of the main policies that dictates some of the financial justification for solar energy installments for small business and individuals is an agreement on how much the utility will pay back solar energy users for energy put back into the grid. This decision is still in flux at the state level, and will impact the return on investment for solar installers across Michigan.

Another, more controllable issue that the Northport Energy Group hopes to tackle is the lack of basic language in village and township ordinances addressing the installation of renewable energy infrastructure. Some local government entities will delay permission of solar panel installation, not because they’re inherently against it but simply because no language exists in the current ordinances that address the situation, therefore delays occur in the approval process. McInnis believes this simple update in the language will prevent a level of deterrence that exists by default. Representatives of the Northport Energy Group took part in an educational program covering this kind of ordinance-language issue through Michigan State University, and they hope to pass that knowledge on across the county.

 

Traverse City, moving forward

Both the municipality of Traverse City, and the municipal utility, TC Light & Power, have made relatively recent public commitments 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. Very recently in 2018, TC Light & Power committed to 100% renewable energy sources by 2040.

Traverse City commissioner Amy Shamroe is also the city commissioner representative on the TC Light & Power board. She speaks about the follow up committal by TC Light & Power, and the willingness of the Traverse City community to push this forward. “Having a municipal utility agree to do that is pretty rare right now,” said Shamroe. “It was a smoother process because the goal had already been set by the city, and there was a will that was shown to be there.”

Shamroe outlines why areas like Traverse City and surrounding communities can be at the forefront of the renewable energy movement. “We have people here who are very concerned about the environment. You find that in a lot of places in Michigan. So much of the coastal areas rely on tourism, and tourism is based on having this beautiful environment for people to come to. People don’t want that ruined, people don’t want the environmental damage that comes along with some of the more traditional energy delivery and processes.”

Successfully committing to renewable energy, whether you’re a homeowner, a business, a village, or a township can seem extremely challenging at times. Shamroe was adamant that it doesn’t have to be as daunting. “I’m hoping that this will show people that it doesn’t have to be David and Goliath,” said Shamroe, “it’s just people getting engaged telling their representative that they care about this, and it’s worth it to them. We’re showing you can do it, and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg either. TC Light & Power has some of the lowest rates in the state, and we don’t anticipate this decision affecting that much, because it’s still a good business model in general.”

 

The energy spreads

There are other initiatives taking place across the region that set great examples. Cherryland Electric is offering community solar opportunities, which basically means you can invest in a solar panel without actually having to install a solar panel on your home or business. This is a concept McInnis said the Northport Energy Group is pursuing for Leelanau County as well. Groups like Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Traverse City are helping to raise awareness, and many nonprofits and small businesses are leading by example. Inland Seas Education Association in Suttons Bay is installing a solar array, hoping for it to supply 90-95% of their electrical needs.

 

Get involved

Shamroe stressed the importance of taking action. “This is a very powerful time right now for people to really get the general population thinking to the future, and what we need to do better. And environmental change, energy change, is a huge step in that direction.”

For people interested in renewable energy—whether you want to push for change in your community or in your own home, or you just want to pursue your curiosity in the subject—Shamroe suggested you reach out to local groups or organizations that work in this field, and try to link up with like-minded individuals to feed off each other and push forward.

A perfect example of such a group, from the way they were formed to what they now represent, is the Northport Energy Group.

Overall, McInnis and the Northport Energy Group see only a few, very manageable challenges in the way of pushing renewable energy forward in the region. “General perception is very favorable in the community,” said McInnis. “If you have the ordinance language, the rules set, the financial understanding … you got the key parts.” McInnis encourages anyone curious in learning more about renewable energy options to contact the NEG through their website. Going back to their Cracker Barrel Circle group roots, they’re more than happy to sit down with anyone and simply have a discussion. They also offer FREE energy conservation home audits, where they can assess how your home might be able to become more energy efficient.

For more information on the Northport Energy Group, visit NorthportEnergy.org or come visit their booth at the Leelanau Uncaged music festival in Northport on Sept. 29.