Tommy Skinner and Liv Rollinger

Petoskey Student Wins Iconic Michigan Environmental Award—Youngest Ever

September 1, 2023 |

I am thrilled to present a closer look at Tommy Skinner, the recipient of the 2023 Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership. One of Michigan’s iconic environmental awards, it is presented annually by our friends at Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council. Since 2021, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with Tommy and his fellow members of the Sustainability Club, witnessing their relentless dedication to siting a solar array on the Petoskey school district property. This visionary endeavor not only paves the way for accessible clean energy but also offers invaluable learning experiences for students across the district.

With a rich history of leading and participating in sustainability and environmental initiatives, both within his community and personal life, Tommy is truly an inspiration. His unwavering commitment has rightfully earned him this prestigious honor. In our conversation, Tommy delves into the significance of winning the award, shares insights for fellow youth advocates, and provides a glimpse into his upcoming endeavors on his journey toward building a more sustainable and resilient future for all of us.

Groundwork: Could you share with us what drove your personal commitment to becoming involved in the Sustainability Club’s efforts to promote renewable energy within Petoskey Public Schools? What motivated you to take on this important environmental project?

Tommy: Environmental stewardship has been a long-standing interest of mine. Growing up and hearing news about the impacts of climate change, I felt there was a fundamental disconnect between what was getting reported and what I was able to see being done about it. The way we have been treating our environment clashes strongly with ideals of personal responsibility, empathy, and fairness. Our society sits perched atop an often ignored network of species, ecosystems, and environmental factors that make our way of life possible. As we burden these ecosystems and rapidly alter environmental conditions we destabilize the foundation upon which sits all we have built. While here in Michigan with our relative wealth, abundant fresh water, and climate-stabilizing lakes, we are not immediately feeling these impacts, many less privileged areas of the world are paying for a lifestyle they haven’t lived.

Groundwork: Organizing the Sustainability Club’s solar initiative demands collaboration and purposeful effort. Could you provide some insights into the specific measures you’ve undertaken to gather support from your school and reach this stage? Looking forward, what are your planned next steps, and do you have any recommendations for encouraging fellow students to participate and create a meaningful influence within your school district?

Tommy: So far we have surveyed the student body about their support of a school solar array. We then took this 93% student support and looked into the economic viability of a solar system using information from our communications with the district finance director and two solar installers. We then brought this data before the superintendent, who got our presentation on the agenda of a school board meeting. This presentation was followed by a similar one to the city council in hopes of laying the groundwork for cooperation between the school and the City of Petoskey as we both work toward the goal of 100% renewability by 2035. As we currently stand the club aims to raise $100,000 by the end of the year for the district’s first array. While deeply disappointing that the district has been unable to allocate any amount of funding for this project, we hope that the financial benefit will be obvious enough to prompt future, district-funded energy investments. Our next steps will be reaching out to local organizations, grants, donors, and community members. We’ve seen communities like Pellston support school solar in this way, and we hope the Petoskey area will do the same. 

My advice to students who want to make a difference within their district is to start somewhere, even if you’re not sure if it’s the right place or if you can’t see the complete roadmap for how it will end. The act of starting gives you momentum and as you go the best way forward becomes clear. I am a notorious overthinker but oftentimes not starting something until you know everything about it means you won’t start at all.  

If you are a Petoskey student and this issue specifically is something that you care about we would love to have you as part of our team. You’ll be able to find us at the PHS club fair or feel free to reach out to us at sustainablephs@gmail.com

Groundwork: Winning the Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership is a remarkable achievement. What does winning this award mean to you?

Tommy: To me winning this award is a testament to the power of repeated and focused group action. The weird analogy that lives in my head is that of an ion engine. The acceleration of this project has never been a dramatic fiery combustion event caused by a single individual. Indeed early on it was frustratingly slow and nearly didn’t escape the gravity well. Over the years many individuals from multiple organizations exerting a non-explosive, methodical, and sustained force has accelerated my metaphorical spaceship and given it the momentum to enact real change. The takeaway that I’d like to give people who see this award is that they can make a substantial difference with even a very small amount of time if it is sustained. I’ve gotten to where I am putting in no more than seven hours most weeks, less than the time commitment required for a single high school class. This is not to take away from the effort that has been put in by our team but to try and break down what I feel is a falsely perceived barrier to action.

Groundwork: Your commitment to environmental stewardship is truly inspiring. Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the future? How do you envision continuing to contribute to sustainable initiatives both locally and beyond?

Tommy: In the near future, I look forward to seeing solar energy powering my family’s home. Over the course of this summer, I have used what I’ve learned working on the school’s project to build a system that will fit well for residential use. This fall my dad and I plan to install the array and tie it into the grid. 

I also hope to become a more consistent participant in other local environmental organizations. I have sporadically been involved with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and the North Country Trail Association. All of these experiences have been incredibly positive and I hope to make that a more regular part of my life. 

Groundwork: Is there anything else you want to share with us about your environmental leadership, personal motivations, or community engagement? 

Tommy: Just that I appreciate the support and guidance that you have provided, Liv. You have been invaluable throughout this process. As a student, I am profoundly grateful to see the Groundwork Center involved in the schools in this way. 

Liv Rollinger

Liv Rollinger is Groundwork’s Climate & Clean Energy Specialist.
liv.rollinger@groundworkcenter.org