GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Lauded today as a national example of clean energy leadership, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said the city will meet its goal of using 100-percent renewable energy by 2020 – but not without large-scale production of its own electricity.
“We continue to work with Consumers (Energy) to expand our investment in a renewable portfolio,” Heartwell said on a conference call organized by Center for American Progress. “But I know that the big plateau jumps that we have to make to get to 100 percent will come because the city is involved in the actual production of power, whether that’s through large solar displays on former landfill sites or wind projects along the coastal area of West Michigan.
“I don’t think we’re going to get to 100 percent without forming our own utility.”
Heartwell was one of three featured speakers on the call, tied to a “Taking Action on Clean Energy and Climate Protection in 2012” report by the Center for American Progress. Others guest speakers were Anne Hunt, environmental policy director for the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., and Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta Energy, which operates Kent County’s Waste-to-Energy incinerator.
The call touted the ability of state and local governments – and the private sector – to pursue clean energy initiatives even as federal officials hunker down in an election year.
“Mayor Heartwell is a great example of a leader on these issues,” said Kate Gordon, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress. “We’ve really seen a retreat to partisan corners here, and Mayor Heartwell has busted through and continued to be consistent throughout.
“The aspiration and the commitment to 100-percent renewable is really impressive. You see a lot of that in Europe, not in the United States.”
Heartwell said the real progress on energy policy is happening at the municipal level as “mayors are stepping up all around America and simply getting it done.” Grand Rapids set a goal of 20-percent renewable energy use and achieved it, he said.
“Perhaps full of myself, I moved the target up to 100 percent by the year 2020,” Heartwell said. “We will get there and we’ll get there with a mix of waste, energy, solar and wind investments.
“Every city can play in this game and every city must play. The easiest way to jump in is in energy conservation. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with big paybacks.”
Grand Rapids has implemented several energy-conservation initiatives including new windows at City Hall, geothermal heating and cooling systems at two city fire stations, five electric-car charging stations downtown and solar panels on the roof of the city water building.
On a bigger level, Grand Rapids continues to explore a private-sector partnership that could produce electricity at less cost that what the city pays for “green generation” power through Consumers Energy, Heartwell said.
His likely scenario: Grand Rapids becomes an equity partner in a solar project or wind farm, pooling its ability to sell tax-exempt municipal bonds with a private developer’s ability to use renewable energy tax credits.
“Together we could generate power, I’m convinced, at a very reasonable rate,” Heartwell said. “Putting solar panels on the top of a city building is a nice thing to do. But if we’re going to achieve that large goal (of 100 percent renewable energy), then we’re going to have to be involved in production of electrical power.”