Sustainability was the theme of Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell's State of the City address on January 15th, 2005 . Given the unemployment situation in West Michigan, a speech not focused on jobs did not sit well with many area conservatives. The mayor's opponents have since critiqued his speech with calls for job growth. However, in a list of environmental initiatives, all of which are commendable, his Honor concluded with the following statement:
"This morning I announce an initiative aimed at reducing the City’s dependency on non-renewable resource power by 20% by 2008. We will begin the process of weaning ourselves from dependency on air-polluting power sources that use irreplaceable fuels. We will become more sustainable in our use of power.
This may not be as difficult as it sounds. One potential answer has always been there; tousling our hair on a spring afternoon, cooling us in the summer and chilling us to the bone in the winter. Wind. West Michigan has an abundance of it. Our coastal climate is ideal for wind generation and wind is a reliable, renewable, and free fuel to create electric power."
How does one city, all on it's own, move to construct a wind farm large enough to power 20% of the city? Where does the money come from to buy the land, and where does the money come from to buy the generators? Certainly this requires an enormous private investment, or it becomes a regional effort by several communities all along the lakeshore. Either way, somebody stands to get filthy rich off of this. You may ask yourself, as a lowly individual Grand Rapidian, how do I get a cut of the action? Will local construction companies get hired? Will my rates go up as I switch over to green power? How do you convince Grand Rapidians to pay more for green electricity when they don't have a job or they're only making $5.15 an hour?
An example of a city that has partially switched over to wind power is Eugene, Oregon. It's a college town, home of the University of Oregon. I lived there for 10 years and watched the city promote the switch to wind power beginning in 1997. Eugene is slightly smaller than Grand Rapids, but growing rapidly. The Eugene Public Utility District now buys a significant chunk of it's energy from a wind farm in Wyoming. Yes, even though Eugene sits an hour from the Pacific Ocean, it buys it's electricity from a facility in the Rockies 1200 miles away. It's cheaper to buy power from an existing facility several states away than it is to build a new facility in your hometown. In addition, there was a 10% rate increase for those Eugene citizens who voluntarily switched over to the new green power. Those who did not want green power pay the same as they did before, and their electricity still flows from Portland General Electric's nuclear power plant and the hydroelectric, salmon-killing Bonneville Power Administration. The power lines are all connected, it's one grid. You end up paying 10% more to feel good about yourself, but the electricity is mixed. You have no guarantee that the power flowing to your refrigerator is from a windmill, it could be a nuke plant dumping radioactive waste in your backyard or hydroelectric dams that are driving the extinction of several species of fish. They have a marketing problem.
We should build our own facility on the big lake's shoreline and sell green electricity to folks thoughout the Midwest. If the mayor's idea is to succeed, our windfarm should be large enough to generate enough power to sell to everyone who wants green power in the state. If we go the same route as Eugene, we will not be in control and we will pay higher prices for green electricity. I support Mayor Heartwell on this one, it's a big upfront investment that will pay off. We all want cleaner air and it's blatantly obvious that the anti-environment Bush administration is taking us in the wrong direction. Let's also make a few bucks by selling the folks in Chicago and Detroit green power. The city should immediately offer tax incentives to wind generator manufacturers and urge them to relocate to Grand Rapids to begin the process.
The American Wind Energy Association
Wind Power Becoming a Better Bargain, NY Times, Feb 13, 2005