Traverse recognizes energy as key to future

I was fortunate enough to find myself in Traverse City earlier this month. Unlike the happy tourists who were enjoying the shops, restaurants and beaches in that wonderful place, my purpose was to attend the Energy Efficiency Leadership Summit hosted by Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI). This event was conceived as part of the ongoing regional dialogue known as The Grand Vision. It reflects awareness in this corner of Michigan that decision-making about energy will be a determining factor in the region's long-term economic performance.

It is encouraging when communities grasp the vital energy-economy link, especially the multiple benefits of saving energy through better efficiency. Based on my previous experience with similar gatherings, a head count of 30 would have been reasonable. To my delight, the Hagerty Center  at Northwestern Michigan College was filled with nearly 200 people! These included regional leaders from all sectors - private, public and nonprofit–as well as interested and engaged residents. I even heard that 6 of 7 voting board members of Traverse City Power & Light were there. This level of involvement by a local utility company is commendable and sets the example for other municipal utilities in Michigan.

After brief opening remarks and a tasty breakfast featuring local food, the summit began in earnest. First up was an overview of a newly released report by MLUI simply called Energy Efficiency and Economic Opportunity in Grand Traverse County. It highlights proven multiple benefits from serious investment in energy savings.

Next was keynote speaker Peter Garforth of Garforth International, LLC. His name should be familiar to anyone who has followed the ongoing community energy dialogue in Holland, Michigan. A key outcome so far has been Holland's 40-year energy plan, which rightly identifies energy efficiency as a top priority.

Garforth spoke with the expertise and credibility that reflects a long career in industry (including stints at Honeywell and Siemens), and years of energy consulting experience in cities and towns around the world. His message was plain: Energy consumption in US buildings–40 percent of total national consumption–is incredibly wasteful compared with the global benchmark. But we were assured that this is actually good news! This is due to the enormous potential to save money and employ people through massive, low-risk investments in improving thousands of homes, businesses and public facilities. In short, this would deliver leaner, meaner, more competitive local economies.

And competition in this area is not something we lack. Garforth's presentation highlighted several international leaders in energy savings. Most interesting to this audience were modestly-sized Vaxjo, Sweden and Guelph, Ontario, which not coincidentally boasts Canada's lowest unemployment rate.

The balance of the summit featured two informative panels: one to highlight existing Michigan-based efficiency programs, and the other to discuss local financing of these investments. The financing piece is crucial because without sufficient scale, according to Garforth, energy efficiency projects will remain interesting but not meaningful in their economic impact. That's the challenge for communities all across Michigan.

Based on what I heard last week, folks in Traverse City are seriously considering what it will take to emerge as the next world leader in regional energy planning. And the energy planning process has already begun through the Grand Vision Energy Network. It remains to be seen if the plan will include specific goals, strategies and benchmarks - like Garforth's plans - that will truly make Traverse City an energy leader.

Can you imagine combining such an impressive economic achievement with already splendid scenery, warm hospitality and plenty of outdoor recreation? Talk about globally competitive!

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