Anatomy of Petoskey’s 100% Clean Energy Vote

October 28, 2019 |

Photo: From left, Petoskey Mayor John Murphy, Council member Lindsey Walker and Groundwork’s Ric Evans walk a closed landfill that might one day soon host a field of solar panels.

Petoskey sent a jolt through Michigan’s local-government world back in June when the city council voted to commit to achieving 100% clean, carbon-free energy by 2035—just 16 years from now. The goal (which includes an interim goal of 30% clean energy by 2020) is the most ambitious clean energy municipal target in Michigan and is well ahead of goals targeted in the Paris climate accord.

What took many people by surprise was the speed with which Petoskey leaders made their decision. The idea ignited at a community meeting just six months prior. The meeting, proposed by Kate Madigan of Michigan Climate Action Network, was originally envisioned as a small gathering of key decisionmakers. But as word spread, enthusiasm for the idea quickly grew, and other community leaders, like the president of the community college and head of the hospital, asked to join. The gathering swelled to more than two dozen people, and by the end, the momentum for a 100% clean energy commitment was surging.

By comparison, Traverse City, which became the first municipality in Michigan to set a 100% clean energy goal, studied and debated the issue for a couple of years before making the commitment.

ATTEND THE UPDATE MEETING! Get the latest on next steps, progress made, 5:30–7:30pm, November 6, at “Petoskey Region Clean Energy Update & Call to Action,” Petoskey City Hall, followed by a celebration of Petoskey’s 100% Renewable Energy goal, 7:30pm, Beards Brewery.

The Petoskey decision did not, however, come out of the blue, explains Petoskey Mayor John Murphy. For one thing, a group called Positive Energy Petoskey had been advocating for clean energy for a number of years, preparing a fertile ground where the idea could sprout.

Adding fuel to the movement, the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation secured a grant from the Mott Foundation to develop clean energy plans in Emmet County.

Murphy’s personal commitment to the environment also played a role. “I’ve always been environmentally conscious,” Murphy says. “In the past I have brought forward other environmental concerns, like the dangers of the Line 5 oil pipeline, and I participated in the Hands Around the Water event.” So when interested citizens asked that Petoskey move ahead on renewable energy, the mayor took them seriously.

Another key to moving clean energy forward: the Michigan Public Power Agency presented a study about the future of power sources—coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewables. “It became apparent that our involvement with coal was limiting out,” Murphy says, meaning two of the coal plants that power Petoskey will be decommissioned about 2030.

Murphy also concedes that seeing Traverse City make a 100% commitment spurred him and others along. The work that Groundwork has done with other communities, like Traverse City, served as a model and template.

Petoskey hired Groundwork to produce a map of city buildings, schools and other properties to assess the potential for solar panel placement. “We also looked at all of the utility bills,” says Ric Evans, Groundwork’s Clean Energy Policy Specialist. “We needed to know, if Petoskey went 100%, how many megawatts would that require, what would that look like?”

Of the leading sites, the No. 1 solar candidate was the city-owned closed landfill. “Noah Marshall-Rashid, of American Spoon, took me there first, and I’ve been there four times since with different groups,” Evans says. He followed up by sending city officials information about using capped landfills for solar installations.

Naturally there were skeptics concerned about the cost of transitioning to clean energy, but the rapid drop in the cost of solar panels and wind turbines shifted the conversation from a sole emphasis on the environment to an emphasis on smart economics, too. “Petoskey and Emmet County are conservative places,” says Petoskey council member Lindsey Walker. “Being able to frame this around jobs and financial feasibility was important.”

Thinking back to the unanimous vote, Walker says, “Even our most conservative council member couldn’t vote no because we showed the numbers and everything lined up so nicely.”

One of the biggest testaments to the enthusiasm Petoskey’s leadership has for clean energy happened during discussion on the night of the vote. The commissioned set the deadline five years earlier than what was originally envisioned. Heading into the city commission meeting, the motion was going to set 2040 as the goal for 100% clean energy. But during the discussion, the mayor suggested the year be moved up to 2035. “The mayor is competitive,” Walker says. “He said, ‘We have to do this five years before Traverse City.’”

“This is about climate change and resilience,” Walker says. “The Michigan Economic Development Corporation gave us an award for being a Redevelopment Ready Community, and any time we are talking about that, I want clean energy to be on the forefront of any decision we make.”