Meet 2023 Petoskey Prize Winner, Tommy Skinner
You’ve taken the podium at a school board meeting. You’re trying to tell the district why it should invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to usurp its current infrastructure for renewable energy.
School board members have asked about returns on investments. Contractors have asked about energy consumption rates and project siting. But you’ve done your homework.
You’ve crunched the finances. You’ve balanced your hometown’s latitude with lake effect conditions to find out how much sunshine can be converted to energy. You’ve polled your peers on your proposal. You’ve met with local leaders and energy businesses. You’ve built a wind turbine and solar panels with your dad, and when they knocked your home’s power out, you adjusted.
Plus, you have a crew of like-minded peers beside you who have done this hard work, too. You have movers and shakers in the crowd inspired by you.
Imagine doing all this—the research, the organizing, the politicking—right now in your latest slice of life. Now imagine doing this back in high school, when school and sports and the whims of being a teenager dominated.
But that’s just what 16-year-old Tommy Skinner and the Sustainability Club he co-leads have done. In two short years, they brought Public Schools of Petoskey—one of the largest institutions in the area by population and footprint—from hardly considering its fossil fuel consumption to considering entirely ditching the source in the future.
What’s more, this Sustainability Club's passion has fanned out like good, healthy wildfire through the community, burning up old thoughts and regenerating ways of thinking that embrace our innate power.
“Basically, all aspects of our lives have some impact on the environment, which is kind of daunting,” Tommy said. “But at the same time, it’s exciting because you can start making changes anywhere, wherever it works most economically or whatever’s most convenient for you. You start there and spread to other places.”
For his work changing minds and protecting his hometown, Skinner—and, by extension, the Sustainability Club’s members—received the Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership at the 25th Environmental Awards Celebration. The $5,000 award is given by the Michigan Environmental Council to a volunteer nominated by one of its member groups.
A new age of activism
Liv Rollinger, climate and clean energy specialist at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, nominated Skinner for the Petoskey Prize. She is also an adviser of Petoskey High School’s Sustainability Club.
When Rollinger saw the call for nominations, she immediately thought of Skinner and his leadership, passion, and goodness.
Rollinger, a young professional herself, said Skinner and the Sustainability Club show just how important youth are in fighting the climate crisis.
"I had so many opportunities in high school to be an advocate and environmentalist, and it is so exciting and baffling to see the opportunities that the students have today and the level of engagement," she said.
The Sustainability Club works on a number of issues, but its efforts to make Public Schools of Petoskey run on clean energy is its cornerstone. Seniors formed the club in 2020 in hopes of bringing solar energy to the campus. Skinner and his peers revived the group after it "fizzled out" during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the two years since, the club members have completed an impressive array of work to prepare. They learned about clean energy dynamics and financing. They met with contractors and local leaders. They organized students and conducted polling. They put together speeches and ran big spreadsheets. Meanwhile, schoolwork and other extracurricular activities went on.
“Everyone’s incredible,” he said. “This wouldn’t be at all possible alone or in a vacuum."
Skinner said we hear about so many issues that impact all levels of society, it can feel like we're living in a novel. But we as individuals don't have to make change at a massive level to make a difference, and making change is easier than one might think when people come together.
“I think a lot of it is just starting,” he said. “We didn’t know the path we were going to take when we started, but it kind of becomes clear as you go.”
Skinner sites the Club’s solar project as a proud example. It went from a wistful idea to something the superintendent will likely act on next summer.
Plans are forming to install solar panels atop the high school’s weight room. It’s a far cry from the Sustainability Club’s goal of a 100% clean energy district, but Skinner says it will show the school and community that these investments are doable and worth it.
Every kid is dropped off at school, many by parents, he said. If they see something like solar panels time and again, underlying support will build.
The Club’s own polling of its peers found that, thanks to their efforts and education, 92% of students support its clean energy goals. They've come across more personal anecdotes, too.
“You think you influence your children, but really, I think he’s had a big influence on us,” said Skinner's mom, Tracy Skinner.
The power of frank passion
As a toddler, Skinner would page through bird guides long before he could read anything in them. He’d press their bird call buttons and, later, identify them out in nature.
As a child, he and his friends would map out a backyard swamp and bring jars of leeches back to Tracy. Tommy began receiving animal skulls and paper wasp nests and books from adults enamored by his inquisitiveness.
As a pre-teen, Tommy and his dad, a builder by trade, began tinkering with a homemade wind turbine and solar panel they could connect to their grid. Recently, Tommy has convinced his dad to make a Prius with a trailer hitch his work vehicle—all the space and energy trucks take are rarely needed.
Even now, on a blue June day, Tommy squatted to study ant colonies and walked up to trees to look at strange leaves.
Tracy said many of these stories speak to Skinner's ever-present interest in nature and an ability to pique others’ interests, too. That includes the gift givers and local leaders. His “exuberant sidekick” dad and jokingly-proclaimed “totally unbiased” mom. Even his compatriots of the Sustainability Club.
It all comes back to what feels to be Tommy’s mantra: The work we must do for this world may feel overwhelming, but that just means we can start anywhere. All we need to do is find another person or two and begin.