TRAVERSE CITY — Northwest Lower Michigan is hip to renewable energy and a returning conference this week in Traverse City will underscore that fact.

The nonprofit Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities will host its third Michigan Clean Energy Conference Tuesday through Thursday in Traverse City, including a free community program Wednesday evening at the State Theatre featuring hopeful news in the battle against global warming. Event organizers said the week's program is designed to bring together both industry professionals and those with an environmental interest to discuss what scientists around the world identify as the single greatest threat to humankind: climate change.

It's all about solutions in the making, and the Grand Traverse area has long shown an interest in renewable energy use, said Dan Worth, Groundwork's clean energy program director. Better yet, the area could begin to generate its own clean energy, he said.

"Why invest in downstate solar fields when we can build them here? In Kingley, in Kalkaska, wherever," Worth said.

The conference is meant to convene energy industry leaders and policymakers at what Worth described as a transformative moment as both technology and culture come together to propel clean energy such as solar, wind and efficiency technologies toward a future with reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

"Half of Michigan's electric needs could be served by projects now under contract," Worth said. "The hope is Michigan can transform to an all-electric state."

This comes against a backdrop of solar and wind energy being less expensive to produce than with new coal plants, which means an expected surge in needed solar and wind installations, he said.

"We'd love it even more if some of that is built up here and help raise up our rural populations," Worth said.

Speakers scheduled for the conference include Liesl Clark, the new director of Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (formerly Department of Environmental Quality); Patti Poppe, chief executive officer at Consumers Energy; Trevor Lauer, president of DTE Energy; and Mary Powell, chief executive officer of Vermont's Green Mountain Power.

Poppe will speak at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the State Theatre as part of a free community evening about climate change and clean energy leadership. She is expected to discuss her personal journey that led to her company's zero-coal by 2040 commitment.

"We would love lots of young folks in the audience. We would love to see public officials in the audience," Worth said.

Traverse City Commissioner Tim Werner, also a Traverse City Light & Power board member, is scheduled to talk about the community's effort to be the first in Michigan to commit to 100 percent clean energy for city operations by 2020, and for all of Traverse City by 2040.

Also, Cherry Republic founder Bob Sutherland will explain why his company committed to 100 percent renewable energy and why companies must take the lead to spark climate solutions.

Jeff Smith, Groundwork's communications director, said the free community event will be ideal for young people who have been hearing about the threats of climate change their entire lives. "This is a message of hope with climate change, with a clean energy promise," Smith said.

By Thursday morning, an invitation-only deal-making summit will take over when officials with utility companies can seal deals with local people who may want a slice of the solar- or wind-powered pie.

"Can we close some deals and put steel in the ground and make things happen," Worth asked.

Equipment makers, landowners, policy and utility leaders and major electricity users are expected to be in attendance, along with grassroots-level community members who support clean energy development.

Sessions are scheduled at multiple venues, including Mari Vineyards for the VIP welcome reception, as well as the City Opera House and Hagerty Center.

More details about the Michigan Clean Energy Conference is available at www.micleanenergyconference.org online.

Want to go?

What: Community evening of climate change hope

Where: State Theatre, downtown Traverse City

When: 5 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 22

Why: Learn about clean energy leadership at a top utility company

Cost: Free

More details: Event is part of Michigan Clean Energy Conference, www.micleanenergyconference.org

Source: Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities