Green Lights: Meet 11 of northern Michigan’s environmental leaders

Northern Michigan has no shortage of impressive green leaders, from nonprofit leaders whose organizations are aimed specifically at protecting the environment, to local businesspeople who have taken it upon themselves to embrace sustainability as a core value. Here are just 11 of the local folks leading the charge in areas of green business, alternative energy and environmental preservation.

Tony Anderson, GM, Cherryland Electric Cooperative

Green claim to fame: Cherryland planned, built and sold out the first community solar project in Michigan in partnership with Traverse City Light and Power, (a project which has been) in operation since 2013. We were also the first utility in the state of Michigan to do a pilot of (nonprofit green bank) Michigan SAVES; the first in the state and first in the nation to do a low-income solar pilot project; the first and only utility in the state to offer a $2,000 rebate on electric vehicles; and one of five electric cooperatives in Michigan with a wholesale power supply portfolio that is over 60% carbon free – the highest carbon-free portfolio of any electric utilities (south of the Mackinac Bridge). Cherryland has also had a net metering program for members who want solar on their homes – or in their yards – for over 20 years.

Cherryland’s wholesale power supplier, Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, has also recently announced a 150-megawatt solar project in Cassopolis, Mich. in partnership with Clenera. If two years of permitting and construction go as scheduled, the facility will be operational by the end of 2023. This has the potential of pushing our carbon-free portfolio from 60% to close to 80% – or higher.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: While the Earth has limited resources, many people have limited incomes. Cherryland has shown how a utility can be environmentally sustainable while not losing sight of the cost to the end consumer. We have actively lived this model for the past 19 years. I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished in partnership with members of our cooperative family.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: Less talk, more action. Goals in far-off years are mere words. We need projects in the ground and plans put into action.

Nathan Bildeaux, Co-founder, Traverse Solar

Green claim to fame: When Traverse Solar was founded, we wanted to be thought leaders in the renewable energy technology sector. We observed stagnation in the development of new technology with respect to residential and other small-scale solar adopters. Most of the forward momentum in the segment was directed at selling more of the same old technology: static (or non-moving) roof or ground-mount photovoltaic systems. That’s great: It brings more solar to more people and moves the green energy needle. However, technology advancements in utility-scale solar power generation were not fast to trickle down to small-scale solar power generation.

That’s where we came in with the idea that everyone should have access to a simple and reliable means to move solar panels (that) follow the sun. We engineered and now manufacture a solar panel tracker that is incredibly easy to install, very reliable and requires zero maintenance. By pointing panels directly at the sun, power generation increases by 30% in the non-winter months and 70% during the snowy season because our product dumps accumulated snow.

We’ve been doing durability testing at the Michigan Tech Keweenaw Research Center – one of the nation’s leading sites for automotive and defense-related severe weather testing – for years now with remarkable success. Our trackers have been installed at homes and businesses all over the Midwest. We have a strong commercial partnership with CBS Solar and we’re developing a new product for commercialization in the near future.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: Environmental sustainability is about protecting our future. The children of today, their children, and all succeeding generations deserve the ability to find joy in the outdoors. Community leaders have a responsibility to act as stewards of the natural world. Our decisions have long-term consequences that must be considered. Let’s be conscious of how our actions affect the environment. Let’s lead by example so that future generations value sustainability and find worth in protecting the world around us. We live in a beautiful area, rife with natural wonder. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t say we did everything we could to protect that?

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: Traverse City needs green leaders that are not afraid to be vocal, steadfast voices for sustainability. We need a unified strategy to guide our decision-making that makes environmental stewardship a priority. We entice visitors to the area by touting our great outdoors. At what cost? When it comes to economic development versus environmental sustainability, what’s the balance? Who’s asking the question and more importantly, who’s answering the question?

Glen Chown, Executive Director, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

Green claim to fame: For three decades, I have been honored to oversee the Conservancy’s efforts to protect significant natural, scenic and farm lands in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Manistee counties. To date we have preserved some 46,000 acres of land and 149 miles of shoreline in the region. This includes protecting and establishing 44 Conservancy-owned nature preserves and sanctuaries, as well as 30 publicly owned parks and natural areas.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: Protecting the environment and promoting sustainability is paramount to maintaining and improving our quality of life. Indeed, to paraphrase our own Chamber of Commerce’s mission statement from decades ago, protecting the environment and managing growth is critical to our future prosperity. This is also why Rotary Charities created GTRLC in 1991 – to provide balance between our inevitable growth with the necessary protection of our natural resources. The return on that initial investment has been nothing short of extraordinary, no matter how you measure it.

On a more personal level, my wife Becky and I have chosen to raise our three sons in the Grand Traverse region, surrounded by the Great Lakes and with world-class recreational opportunities close at hand. We feel very fortunate to live here and we feel a sense of responsibility about protecting the environment that makes this region so special. We feel compelled to do everything in our power to pass this region’s outstanding land and water assets on to future generations so that they too can fall in love with the extraordinary beauty of this area and will want to continue to care for it.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: We need to encourage more private-public partnerships and more collaboration in the future. There are tremendous challenges that require innovative thinking, substantial investments of time and treasure, and what we at the Conservancy like to call ‘radical interdependence.’ We are all in this together and only by working together can our region be a shining example of the very best sustainability practices and a model for other regions to emulate.

Nathan Griswold, President, Inhabitect

Green claim to fame: My career has been focused on designing, building, and growing nature-based solutions that manage stormwater, promote ecological diversity, and protect our regional waterways. I have been active within the landscape industry for over 25 years and have worked on projects of every scale, from high-rises in New York City to the backyards of homes in northern Michigan.

I was lucky enough to play an active role in the development of the green roof industry in North America. I have over 19 years of experience with this technology and consider myself an ‘old school’ expert. This experience has allowed me to work on over 1,000 green roof projects, with a growing list of projects here in northern Michigan. I pride myself on educating designers, community members, community decisionmakers, and other interested parties on the benefits of green vegetated roofing, as well as green stormwater infrastructure and shoreline restoration.

I earned an associate’s degree in plant science from Northwest Michigan College, followed by a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and a certificate in landscape and nursery development from Michigan State University. I founded Inhabitect in 2013 with the hope of creating lasting change in the place that I have always called home: northern Michigan.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: I am driven to promote the utilization of plants, stormwater, and landscapes to showcase sustainable practices in both the public and private sectors. Creating places and spaces that are ecologically, socially, and environmentally beneficial is my passion and by life’s work. I could not see myself doing anything else.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: Traverse City and the surrounding townships, communities, and counties must adopt policies, mandates, and incentive programs that are supportive of green stormwater infrastructure. Stormwater must be infiltrated first and then slowed and cooled down before entering our rivers, lakes, and bays. Managing water with natural landscapes, vegetated rooftops, and other permeable surfaces will help to reduce problems with stormwater and sewage overflows within the city limits. This must happen on commercial and residential properties alike to make lasting change.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director, For Love of Water (FLOW)

Green claim to fame: My legal and advocacy work to shut down Line 5 has been important in this multi-year collaborative campaign to protect our Great Lakes from a catastrophic oil spill. Early on, our founder Jim Olson and I identified the State of Michigan’s role as public trustee as one of the key levers to revoking and terminating the Line 5 easement in the Straits of Mackinac. We dug up the original 1953 easement from the DNR offices and documented Enbridge’s egregious and ongoing violations; we consulted with risk experts to evaluate and report on alternatives to piping oil through the heart of the Great Lakes; we joined and helped build the Oil & Water Don’t Mix Campaign to engage and empower citizens, lawmakers, advisory boards, and task forces; we published the first economic analysis of a Line 5 pipeline spill; and we continue working every day with committed partners and the tribes to uphold the State of Michigan’s sovereign right to protect the Great Lakes – which represents 20% of the planet’s fresh surface water.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: As someone who has always been deeply connected to the natural world, I had an intuitive sense that we needed to live within our ecological boundaries no matter where I lived: the Amazon, the American Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, Southeast Asia and the East Coast. In every environment, I observed unsustainable urban and agrarian practices that stripped the land of its natural resources and poisoned our waterways. These observations led me to a lifelong journey in search of transformative frameworks to promote sustainable economic thinking and ways of life. It’s been a journey to find a thriving systemic balance that is distributive, regenerative and resilient. And my focus has centered on water since it is fundamental to all life.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: The Traverse City region is one of the most spectacular places I have ever known. It is a peninsula-within-a-peninsula, known for its blue and turquoise waters, sandy beaches, blue-ribbon trout streams and hardwood and conifer forests. It’s the natural beauty of this area defined by water, as well as the people of this region who inspire me each and every day. People in this region care so deeply about this place. We cannot be complacent, though.  To protect this ‘Freshwater Capital in the Great Lakes,’ as I like to call it, we must be proactive and articulate a sustainable vision centered around water. It will require green or blue leaders to connect with passionate people in every sector of business, government and nonprofit. To solve the problems of this region that are accelerated by the climate crisis, we all need to have an oar in the water. This is how we can best solve these ‘wicked problems’ of the 21st century that have no silver bullet solutions or fixes. In other words, it is up to all of us to be fierce advocates for this place.

Bill Latka, Producer/Director/Business Owner, Storylicious and Rivet Entertainment

Green claim to fame: Near the end of my 20 years living in Los Angeles as a producer of over 2,500 national TV commercials and several hours of programming for Discovery, Science, and other channels, my writing partner and I sold a documentary series about climate change solutions to Discovery Channel. My team spoke daily with leading climate scientists and sustainability experts worldwide to inform our story during the 18-month research and writing phase. I traveled the globe and saw firsthand the impact our overheating climate was already exacting on people and the planet. Experiencing this overwhelming proof and studying forecasts for the future changed my worldview and redefined my life’s work: to slow and reverse the upcoming climate catastrophe.

When I moved back to Traverse City in 2008, in addition to my work in advertising and entertainment, I committed myself to support nonprofits and companies here and across the state working on climate and sustainability solutions by creating videos, websites and social media content. I co-founded and still work on the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign to shut down the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. I grew the Michigan Climate Action Network social media presence to one of the largest in the state. I’m now launching a climate solutions storytelling project called See Change (seechangemedia.org) to activate the public to scale up the implementation of climate solutions. It’s an honor to have been recognized for my climate work by Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Groundwork Center and Sierra Club. Still, I’m driven by the differences we all must make to rise to this challenge.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: Climate change is the most critical challenge facing humanity. It is affecting everything we need to survive: our water, our food, our security. Displacing the system reliant on fossil fuels, increasing the ability of the land to capture carbon and transforming how we consume are critical to addressing this problem. Our health and happiness can be improved, the disadvantaged can be made whole and we can create millions of good-paying jobs by addressing the climate crisis head-on. Most of what the public knows about global warming was formed by the fossil fuel companies, which has turned simple physics into a toxic debate. For example, the concept of your ‘carbon footprint’ was actually a stunt created by BP. We need to change that and get busy implementing solutions.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: Traverse City is a hotbed of environmental activism precisely because it’s in the middle of 21% of the world’s fresh surface water. It’s a beautiful place that is already experiencing the impacts of climate change. I’m working to communicate the changes we need to implement to protect what we all love.

Jim Lively, Climate and Environment Program Director, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities

Green claim to fame: Groundwork has allowed me many opportunities to help organize and advance initiatives. More than a decade ago, I was very involved in organizing the regional Grand Vision public input process. In 2013 I was an early organizer of the Oil and Water Don’t Mix campaign to shut down the Line 5 pipeline. And I’m proud to have been involved in organizing the Great Lakes Business Network and initial efforts around the Michigan Climate Action Network.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: Living in northern Michigan makes me so appreciative of our amazing Great Lakes and surrounding environment and I’m deeply concerned about the impact climate change is already having on our ecosystem.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: We need to drastically modify our energy system to stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. This is a huge global effort and our region is leading many positive initiatives.

Jim MacInnes, CEO and Co-owner, Crystal Mountain Resort

Green claim to fame: I served for nine years on the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy board; for two years on the Michigan Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council; and later, for 10 years as chairman of the Michigan Utility Consumer Participation board, representing the interests of residential ratepayers in utility rate cases and advocating for low-cost clean energy supplies. I was named as one of 16 Green Leaders in Michigan in 2010 by the Detroit Free Press, and as Energy Innovator of the Year in 2015 by the Michigan Agency for Energy. I received the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council’s Environmentalist of the Year award in 2017 and was inducted into the Michigan Energy Innovators Business Council Hall of Fame in 2019.

At Crystal Mountain, our development team built the first LEED-certified spa and fitness center in the Midwest in 2009. We were the first to install free public EV charging up north in 2011. We re-lamped our 33,0000-square-foot conference center with LED lights in 2012, saving 75,000 kilowatt-hours for energy per year. And we installed an all-electric closed loop geothermal heat pump HVAC system for our 30,000-square-foot inn residences building in 2017.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: It all started with my senior project in engineering school 45 years ago, which was to design and build a wind turbine and inverter that sent clean electricity into the grid. My view now is that we have only one planet and need to take care of it for future generations. Environmental sustainability is also good for business!

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: Strong advocacy is what is needed the most – for clean water, reduced waste, low-carbon electricity, transmission systems that enable low-carbon electricity, biodiversity, local healthy food or whatever environmental issues you are passionate about.

Kate Madigan, Executive Director, Michigan Climate Action Network

Green claim to fame: Helping found and build the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, which helped elevate Line 5 to be a top issue in Michigan and to convince Governor Whitmer to take action this year. Leading the local organizing effort for Traverse City and TCLP to set the first community-wide 100% renewable energy goal in the state. Successfully advocating for Governor Whitmer to set a goal for Michigan to be carbon neutral by 2050. Winning the ruling that now allows climate change evidence to be included in a state agency’s decision for the very first time; we are now presenting climate evidence as part of the state’s decision about the Line 5 oil tunnel. Building and leading the Michigan Climate Action Network (MiCAN), where we reach over one million people each year and engage thousands of people to take action.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: Like most people, I want my children to be healthy, to be able to pursue their dreams, and to experience the beautiful world I was born into. Climate change threatens that. I’m motivated to do this work to build a better future for the people I love and for our community, and to protect the places I love. The solutions to climate change will also result in cleaner air and water and healthier communities. Solving climate change will create thousands of family-sustaining jobs, and if done right, it will build a more just society as well. That’s the vision that inspires me and what keeps me doing this work.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: Thanks to the goals that the city and TCLP set in recent years, city operations are already powered by 100% renewable energy and TCLP has added new solar projects to get to 40% renewables soon. This is a great start and it shows the power of clean energy goals and good local leadership. It also brought national recognition to Traverse City as a green leader. But to prevent the climate impacts we are now seeing from getting much worse, scientists urge us to cut global emissions in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050. So we need to get off fossil fuel-powered electricity even faster, and we need to electrify everything – including our buildings and transportation. I’d like to see Traverse City set a carbon-neutrality goal and develop a plan for how our community can get there. This would align with our state’s goal, and the goals of leading cities in Michigan and around the country.

Tim Pulliam, President, Keen Techical Solutions

Green claim to fame: At Keen, we have been able to work across the country in the industrial and manufacturing setting on efficiency-related programs. Through these projects we have removed over 1.5 billion wasted kilowatts from the grid. While these big numbers sound impressive, the amount of waste across that sector in enormous. The most fulfilling changes are the smaller more cultural changes we experience with our team, clients, vendors and at home with our families, growing awareness and consideration for our own localized impact on our resources and the environment.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: It has to matter. Our health, happiness, and overall well-being are directly connected to the quality of our environment. We can see the impacts and while there is science and data to back it up, we really only need our eyes. Clean air, water, food sources and access to natural environments and beauty help heal and create happiness. We have to start using additional metrics in measuring success and wealth of organizations if they negatively impact our access to those things.

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: Our region has an opportunity to be a model. It’s one of the reasons for the crazy demand our area has been experiencing. It’s going to take big and crazy ideas to protect our local environment while sustainably managing this growth. We have to message it properly so that the new businesses, developers and residents see the value that is attracting them in the first place. We have to show the real value of these resources we are protecting. We need create policy that allows doing good to be the most logical choice in the way we operate as a region.

Tim Werner, City Commissioner, City of Traverse City; Board Member, Traverse City Light & Power

Green claim to fame: I feel fortunate to have been part of the efforts in moving both the city and Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) forward to renewable energy goals. The city in 2016 announced a 100% renewable electricity goal for city buildings and city operations by 2020. In the fall of 2018, TCLP announced a goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2040 and an interim goal of 40% by 2025. The city proper was out in front and I think that helped apply some pressure to TCLP in a positive way. Now, we are well on our way to that 2025 interim goal.

Why environmental sustainability matters to me: (It’s about) walking the walk and not just talking. When I got started with all this, my kids were younger. And to me personally, I would be embarrassed to just be talking about doing things and not actually doing things. TCLP is nimble because it’s small, so we can do these things. So, let’s show our kids and the next generations what’s possible. I’ve gotten asked the question, ‘Traverse City is so small, why don’t you just wait for the feds to come up with their rules (for renewable energy)? Then they’ll help with grants and all that.’ But to me, I want to show what’s possible. Being nimble and having our own public utility, we have the opportunity to show ourselves, show the next generation, show other communities, what’s possible (in this space).

What Traverse City needs most to be a green leader: To me, it’s to continue building momentum. I feel we have momentum and can continue to build it. Part of why I’m excited about the Fish Pass project is that it’s a unique project that will attract attention. People will come to Traverse City to see what’s going on with that Fish Pass project. We could be doing the same with TCLP’s renewable energy goals. All these various aspects of the puzzle – electric vehicles, battery storage, building electrification – we can kind of be out there on the cutting edge of showing other communities what’s possible. And people will come to Traverse City to see what we’re seeing and what we’re doing, and to talk to the community and see how it’s working. It’s an opportunity to show leadership. And that’s kind of circular: What’s it take to be a green leader? It’s to be a leader.

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