Electricity, jobs and more

Dan Worth, of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, speaks to the Economic Club of Traverse City.

TRAVERSE CITY — Local, small-scale solar and wind power generation offer benefits that extend beyond just saving money on electricity, Dan Worth of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities told members of the Economic Club of Traverse City at the group's February meeting.

"We think 'big picture' on energy," he said of Groundwork. "The beauty of doing that (installing local power generation) up here is — the benefits that will stay with us. There is huge potential for jobs in this."

Local institutions can train roofers and solar panel installers, he said. Local citizens will get jobs installing renewables in northern Michigan. The local electrical grid will become more resilient, more capable of dealing with the ups and downs of electric demand and supply, said Worth, Groundwork's Clean Energy Program director.

Solar panels in northern Michigan produce more power under summer's sunny skies, the season when air conditioning typically bumps up demand for electricity, than in cloudier months.

About 70 percent of our region's solar power potential exists in summer, Worth said. Winter's gray skies reduce the output of solar panels. That's why the devices are more cost-effective in places like Florida and southern California.

"We get about half as much up here," he said of the potential energy that panels can capture from the sun's rays.

He admitted that businesses and people in the sunbelt have an easier time making solar energy pay than those based in northern Michigan.

"Local renewables are expensive," said Worth. "There is an additional cost of doing this locally."

Still, he said, installing small-scale solar or wind generators holds the promise of long-term economy.

"It's a 10- to 20-year payout. And after that, it's free juice."

Major utilities lean toward massive renewable generation installations, like wind farms and large solar arrays, he said, because bigger is cheaper.

But Groundwork, he said, sees multiple benefits of small local power generation.

Wind and solar generation complement each other, he said — because when the sun isn't shining, it likely is windy. When one technology lags, the other typically operates a high efficiency. The result is a power grid based on multiple generation methods that work in concert. That kind of diversified sourcing works even more efficiently, he said, when those generators are located near energy users.

"Let's just call it local energy," Worth said.

He said Groundwork is devoting much of its effort to interacting with local communities, discovering what they require to thrive, and then jump-starting projects with the goal of handing them off to entities that can help them grow.

"A lot of our work these days is determining what local communities need," said Worth. "Kalkaska is going to be very different from Traverse City in terms of what they need. It's about doing projects that lift up populations and people."

The solar array in the shadow of Traverse City's iconic wind turbine has helped local residents become more aware of renewable energy, he said.

"This megawatt out there has been the best billboard. You can't buy publicity like this."

Financing the expansion of local production of small-scale renewable energy is a hurdle, he admitted.

"The big key is stacking the capital. Aggregation is the key."

He said private investment, angel investors and crowdfunding each can play a role in financing solar and wind power generation. The combined effect of several investment streams, he said, may be key to expanding local power generation.

The benefits are many, he said: education, employment, making the region less dependent on far-away energy sources.

Plus, he said, "it can make you feel good."

Business Editor