Saving Energy

Jan 14, 2015

As everybody who isn’t in solitary confinement knows, gasoline prices are now unbelievably low. So is inflation, and as a result there is less interest in energy conservation these days. Sales of electric vehicles and even hybrids are down, and there doesn’t seem to be as much interest in them from reporters gearing up for the annual auto show in Detroit.

Nor do I hear as much concern for the heating problems of the poor and homeless as we move into this harsh winter. Yet any rational person knows these low energy prices won’t last, any more than today’s snow and ice will be around in August.

Georgetown University believes long-term energy solutions will take a community effort – and they are offering a $5 million dollar prize as incentive to small and medium size towns, counties and cities willing to rethink their energy use. The school will award that money to the community that best demonstrates success in lowering energy consumption over the next two years. Georgetown’s Energy Prize competition hasn’t gotten a lot of national notice, but fifty-two communities across the nation have signed up to try to win. Three are in Michigan – the city of Holland, Houghton County, in the far west Upper Peninsula, and a combined entry from Farmington, Farmington Hills and their public schools. The Farmington folks seem especially gung-ho, and have invited me to speak to a community celebration tonight at their Costick Activities Center. I’m not exactly the event’s glamour; they have a former American Idol runner-up who will sing.

Nate Geinzer, an assistant to the city manager, is the point man for the competition. He told me the Farmingtons are determined to make a ten-community final round, and sent me the city’s fairly massive detailed plan to get there.

I found the plan impressive. They aren’t calling for a series of short-term gimmicks, like getting people to wear more sweaters and turn the thermostat down. They are trying to make energy conservation a fairly painless, multi-pronged, permanent way of life. They have enlisted two key partners from the non-profit sector, the Clean Energy Coalition, and a group called Michigan Saves, which helps make energy improvements possible for consumers via affordable financing.

The Farmingtons have a multi-year and multi-faceted approach that is as impressively comprehensive and detailed as a military operation. They have plans for everything from teaching people what light bulbs to buy to landscaping in a way that saves energy. This is a long-term community effort aimed both at the public and private sectors, and even would put the arts to work to save energy. Reading their plan, I realized something. Whether or not they win the Georgetown Energy Prize, if they accomplish the goals set forth in their plan, they will already have won.

They will have made more rational energy use a normal way of life, and these cities and their residents will therefore be in a far better position when energy prices again lurch upwards. Over the long haul, my guess is that any community that really tries for this prize will save more than five million dollars, whether they win or not.

Which is, I suspect, what Georgetown had in mind all along.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.