Build Back Better for Us: John Kinch

As we work to tackle the climate crisis and eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, there is no doubt that renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy, must be at the forefront of our nation’s strategy. John Kinch, executive director of Michigan Energy Options based in East Lansing, MI, is focused on making this a reality. 

Throughout his time at Michigan Energy Options, Michigan’s longest tenured energy-focused organization, John has gained experience and expertise when it comes to implementing renewable energy solutions that benefit the communities in which solar projects are built. The organization’s focus on community-based energy projects — like the solar project John and his partners helped build in East Lansing — has been a core tenant of its work as Michigan Energy Options looks to reduce fossil fuel consumption and help put the state on a path towards a carbon-free future. 

Along with his work for Michigan Energy Options, John works for the State of Michigan and major utility companies, advising on how renewable energy solutions can be implemented to produce tangible results in the fight against climate change. Holding a PhD in Environmental History, John recognizes how urgent the crisis is, and believes that solar energy energy must be a key part of our strategy. 

For John, building back better and greener means taking advantage of the historic opportunities in front of us to invest in solar energy, building solar projects in unused or underutilized spaces such as parking lots and former industrial sites, both to move the needle on carbon emissions as well as accommodate our growing populations while protecting our precious natural spaces. With promising developments in the fight against climate change at the state level with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, John believes that we can capitalize on these opportunities at the federal level as well by passing President Biden’s Build Back Better Act to invest in clean energy solutions that produce tangible results for people and communities. 

“We have some real immediate challenges when it comes to resiliency and adaptation. Climate change is a crisis that is not just immediate, but it is a long term crisis. I don’t think we are ever going to get ahead of it unless we really actively think about how we empower communities to develop approaches, to develop funding, to develop mindsets that encourage more renewable energy development.”

 

Build Back Better for Us: J. Field Reichardt

A lifelong resident of the Grand Haven area, Field Reichardt understands what’s right for his community’s electric energy. Field has been long involved in the Grand Haven community, striving for its best interests, especially issues affecting quality of life.

With the shutdown of the city’s aging coal-fired power plant, Grand Haven’s Board of Light & Power proposed a plan to build a new gas-powered “peaker” plant. The proposed 12.5 megawatt plant, to be used 5-10% of the time, would be built on Harbor Island in the Grand River, a piece of land vulnerable to high water, and the site of both a coal ash storage area and a toxic former city dump.

In late 2019, the Grand Haven City Council had set a goal, for 2020, to find “a community driven” solution to the electricity issue. Reichardt and a group of other citizens pushed for an independent study.  When the Council declined, and “punted” the ball to the local utility board, the growing group formed the Grand Haven Energy Organization, to promote the independent review of the plans. The group, including conservatives and liberals, young and old, grew to over 1,400 supporters.  

The effort also energized diverse, forward-looking candidates to run for the utility board and for the City Council.  The August Primary stunned the community:  The newcomers, all of whom favored a new look at the power plant plans, won overwhelming primary margins.  Local officials and leaders who had been backing the new plant realized they had underestimated community concern.  According to Field, the expectation in the August 16 Council Meeting, a few days after the primary, was a  3-2 Council vote to approve bonding for the plant. 

“We were stunned when the council voted 5-0 to request the Board of Light and Power to come up with a new plan,” said Field. 

More than 100 people showed up at that council meeting.  27 people, including about 15 young people, addressed the council to express their opposition to the BLP plans. Only three people supported the plans.  

The result: The Board of Light and Power is revising their plans, changing their focus from being an energy producer to being an energy distributor.  

Field calls the success “a classic people vs. public relations” effort.  His message:  “It took us a year and a half to turn the big ship away from the shoals. If people care enough about an issue, they can change even the most entrenched opponent’s minds. It took time, It took patience.  It took diplomacy. But we did it.”

Now, as the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) has become involved with the city on the environmental problems near the mouth of the Grand River, there are more issues to resolve: protecting Harbor Island, the river itself, and Lake Michigan from further threats of contamination. 

Through his years as a political and community activist, Field recognizes the importance of investing in our transportation and clean energy infrastructure and the need for bipartisanship to address climate change. At the center of this belief is the understanding that the threats facing our communities are not partisan issues, but points of common interest that our elected leaders should be working to address, regardless of party affiliation. Field supports investments that will improve the resiliency of our energy grid, enhance renewable energy and energy storage systems, and make transportation more sustainable.

“The United States has only 4% of the population of the planet.  Though we need to think globally, we can all act locally to make a difference. We are doing our bit in Grand Haven. So can you!”

Build Back Better for Us: Denise Keele’s Story

Step one in saving the world: admitting the problem. The problem being the greatest threat to our infrastructure, our livelihoods, our food sources, and our way of life: climate change. 

Denise Keele, a professor of environmental law and sustainability and development at Western Michigan University, and founder of the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition (KCCC), says recognizing and conveying the urgency of the climate crisis is the first step in fighting it. 

“The urgency could not be greater. That’s  why it’s called the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition. That’s why we’re passing emergency declarations, to change the frame of mind about the level of response that is necessary.” 

In 2019, Denise and the group of activists who would soon become the KCCC, petitioned the Kalamazoo Environmental Concerns Committee (ECC) and requested that the Kalamazoo City Commission declare a climate emergency. The proposal was passed and some political candidates in Kalamazoo adopted the emergency declaration in their campaigns that year, a move KCCC had anticipated. 

Recognizing climate change as a public emergency not only raises awareness within the community, says Denise, “and now we have something we can hold these elected officials accountable to. It gives us a tool of continued leverage, that is really the value of the declaration.” 

Denise understands that while taking action against climate change at a local level is important, the real heavy lifting has to come from the state and federal levels. 

“There are so many, what we call, shovel-ready projects right here in Kalamazoo. What is stopping them is federal support or the state support, and we just don’t have the capacity and staffing and funding we need. And that’s what the government is for right?  And these local folks want their Community Solar, we have passed ordinances for housing Equity, we’re trying to put in our charging stations, and grow our food gardens, and to scale it up requires that federal piece and that federal support.”

Denise supports the major investments in climate action proposed in the Build Back Better agenda, she knows combatting this crisis requires major federal support and bold action in every sector across the board.  

“There is no silver bullet to solving the climate crisis. It is going to take a myriad of different policies and actors in every single sector in order to not just address and mitigate, but also adapt,” says Denise. 

“What is the biggest threat to our infrastructure? The biggest threat to our livelihood, to me getting around, to me having a place to live, shelter, to me getting food, is climate change! …Our downtown floods every single spring now. Heat is buckling our roads. People are dying because they don’t have air conditioning, or because their home is not insulated properly. We cannot feed ourselves. So to me, why should every policy decision be a CC decision? It’s because it is our greatest threat. Anything that you want to do, whether it be housing and the equity issues, everything that you want to do is going to be impacted by a climate change effect. So it has to therefore be included.”

Build Back Better for Us: Austin Burt’s Story

For Austin Burt, the “Lake Life” has always been his way of life. Growing up in Traverse City, MI, Austin developed a deep connection with the Great Lakes and everything the region has to offer in terms of outdoor activities. This connection is made especially unique by his love for surfing the Great Lakes and his involvement in the small, tight knit surfing community consisting of individuals that surf Lake Michigan in all weather and seasons. 

Being born and raised in Northern Michigan, Austin has seen the changes that have taken place over the years and how the accelerating effects of climate change are impacting the land and water that he loves so much. As lake temperatures rise and weather patterns have become more inconsistent, it has gotten harder for Austin and fellow surfers to catch the waves in the same way they used to. He sees climate change as the culprit for these changes, and is passionate about taking action to protect the lake he calls “Big Mama Mich” and his beloved playgrounds. 

Coupled with the changing climate, Austin is deeply concerned with increasing amounts of pollution in Lake Michigan, including debris, mercury, and micro plastics that have found their way into fish and animals. In the spring of 2021, Austin and a friend went fishing on Sleeping Bear Bay, an area that is known for its salmon and trout fishing. After catching an enormous, beautiful salmon in the bay, Austin says that when he and his friend filleted their catch that they found its intestines littered with all sorts of trash and plastic, making the fish inedible. 

This is sadly now a common occurrence and Austin sees the threat pollution and climate change pose to the fishing and tourism industries that the region relies on for economic well-being. Consistently participating in beach cleanups that produce several contractor bags full of garbage on average, Austin is worried about what the future will hold for the region’s economy and how the region can maintain the delicate balance between supporting its economy and protecting the water and land that is truly a paradise. 

For Austin, building back better and making investments in our infrastructure present a unique opportunity to protect the Leelanau Peninsula, “Big Mama Mich,” and the “Lake Life” lifestyle that is such a big part of his daily life, not to mention the precious waves that he chases in a wetsuit when lake temperatures dip towards freezing. He is calling on elected officials in Michigan and members of Congress to take advantage of this opportunity to protect Northern Michigan, the Great Lakes, and the region’s economy so it can remain the pure, beautiful oasis that it is today. 

“Northern Michigan and the Leelanau Peninsula is one of the last bubbles of clean water and beautiful spaces. We have to keep it that way, man. Once it goes bad, it’s really hard to reverse those changes. We need to invest in our infrastructure and tackle climate change and pollution to make sure we protect the places we love. We have to be more environmentally conscious. I want to always be able to have this playground and continue doing the things that I love.”

Build Back Better for Us: Bali Kumar’s Story

Bali Kumar is a resident of Detroit and Chief Operating Officer of PACE Loan Group, where he lends capital nationwide to property owners and real estate developers to retrofit existing buildings and build more sustainable adaptive reuse and new construction projects.

Bali’s company helps nonprofits, businesses, apartment buildings, hotels, and other commercial properties finance clean energy and water conservation upgrades that help them save money while reducing their carbon footprint and eliminating waste. Working in the clean energy space, Bali sees firsthand the potential for jobs building and installing the clean energy and energy efficiency technologies of the future. For example, PACENation estimates that for every $1 million in PACE financing, 15 jobs are created.

Through public-private partnerships and bold investments, like the American Jobs Plan, the government can play a big role in the advancement of clean energy. It’s programs like PACE that help property owners small and large do their part to reduce emissions and promote cleaner air and water in a fiscally responsible manner.

Bali supports President Biden’s American jobs Plan because it sets bold and smart plans for the inevitable transition to clean energy. He has seen the growth in jobs and the impact clean energy has on Michigan’s economy and believes there is much room to grow this sector nationwide with the right policies in place.

“Transitioning to clean, renewable energy will not only help us mitigate climate change, but it will also help create local, well-paying jobs. Green-collar jobs are the jobs of the future. We need leaders in Congress to recognize this opportunity in the American Jobs Plan to rebuild our economy while protecting our air, land and water for future generations.”

Build Back Better for Us: Bob Sutherland’s Story

Bob Sutherland owns Cherry Republic, a food store born in northern Michigan that sells more than 200 products made from cherries with six locations across the state. As a prominent northern Michigan business owner, Bob understands the importance of Michigan’s Great Lakes, majestic dunes and beaches – and the need to protect them.

Bob is an advocate for our Great Lakes and northern Michigan way of life because he believes it’s right. With multiple locations in northern Michigan that rely heavily on a thriving tourism and agriculture industry, Bob is seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand.

Record high lake levels over the past several years have caused erosion of Michigan’s dunes and beaches. Extreme weather and abnormal climate patterns have led to excessive rainfall and humidity causing extra work and expenses for cherry farmers, on which Bob’s business depends. He is experiencing the inherent connection between our water and Great Lakes and the climate crisis.

It’s Bob’s belief that the business community has a significant responsibility when it comes to the protection of our air, land and water and the fight against a changing climate. Business owners should use their platforms to take a stance and ensure leaders know why protecting our air, land and water is so important.

That’s why he’s using his platform to support President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to build back our economy and water infrastructure while positioning us to tackle the climate crisis. The American Jobs Plan presents our country with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect our water, that businesses like Bob’s rely on so heavily. 

“We are seeing the impacts of climate change right now here in northern Michigan. The American Jobs Plan is our opportunity to create jobs rebuilding our country and tackling climate change. We need bold action and leadership now to tackle the climate crisis, which is why I’m calling on members of Congress to get behind the American Jobs Plan.”

Build Back Better for Us: Jim MacInnes’s Story

Jim MacInnes knows a thing or two about efficiency. As CEO and co-owner of Crystal Mountain Resort since the 1980s he along with his wife and resort President, Chris MacInnes, has built one of Michigan’s premier outdoor recreation destinations, offering skiing, golfing, spa and conference services for hundreds of thousands of guests every year. Under their leadership, the Crystal development and operations team has built the resort into what it is today, and Jim has maintained a strong focus on community-building and efficiency, especially when it comes to the infrastructure and the energy needed to power their business. 

Over the past 36 years Jim has noticed the accelerating effects of climate change in Northern Michigan in the form of more drastic and variable weather, increases in precipitation and other extreme weather events, along with rising average temperatures. Using his background in electrical engineering with a degree from the University of California Irvine and previous experience in the power industry, Jim has pursued energy efficient, and clean energy alternatives to power the resort. These initiatives have been key to ensuring the resort operates efficiently, cost effectively and with an environmentally conscious focus. 

From transitioning to LED lighting, more efficient energy control systems, public EV charging, reusing water in more sustainable ways, and investing in geothermal energy that now heats and cools a 30,000 square foot inn at Crystal Mountain, Jim is committed to a low carbon future for his business, the surrounding communities, and Michigan as a whole. Despite the need to invest in snow-making machinery due to warmer temperatures in the winter months, the resort now runs on 62% zero carbon electricity.  

With the climate crisis continuing to accelerate, Jim and Chris recognize the importance of investing in a carbon neutral future and have led by example in how they run their business. As we try to facilitate meaningful action to address climate change, Jim says that “the emphasis needs to be on disinvestment in fossil fuels and turning to clean energy alternatives based on systems thinking.”

For Jim, building back our economy from COVID better and greener presents a unique opportunity to tackle climate change and necessitates becoming much less dependent on fossil fuels. He believes that through investments in more resilient infrastructure, pursuing innovative ways to upgrade our power grids, and by accelerating our energy transition using more development-friendly clean energy regulations and tax incentives, we can ensure that Northern Michigan and places like Crystal Mountain Resort continue to be uniquely beautiful and majestic destinations for generations to come. 

“There are many ways to significantly reduce carbon emissions here in the United States and we can be a leader.  The technology and opportunities are currently available, we just need the will to use them.” 

Build Back Better for Us: Naina Nagar’s Story

Naina Nagar, a senior at Troy High School has volunteered for many causes throughout her 17 years of life. Most recently, she’s spent her evenings making phone calls to lawmakers and community members about the current state of clean water in Michigan with Michigan LCV’s Our Water Activist program.

Naina found the Our Water Activist program through a program at her school called Project Lead, a group that organizes volunteer activities for students.

“When I found the Our Water Activist program I thought it would be a great way for me to make a difference where I could see things changing and make some kind of progress right now.”

While clean water activism is a passion of Naina’s, she also understands the key to a sustainable future requires taking serious action against climate change by replacing fossil fuels with clean energy on a global scale.

“Fossil fuels need to be replaced with clean energy, and we need to move away from the gasoline cars that we have right now. That would be the only way to really have a future on the planet that’s going to be sustainable.”

Naina believes taking bold actions against climate change needs to be a top priority for citizens and lawmakers everywhere.

“It’s not just recycling that’s going to make a big difference in the world, or using less water, or less electricity or things like that. We need to be doing big things like taking governmental action on a wide scale throughout the state and the country.”

That’s why Naina supports building our country back better with historical investments in protecting water access and fighting climate change.

“We’re talking about the future, your family’s future, your kids or your neighbor’s kids, or everyone that you know. I like reminding people that this is bigger than you.”

The Build Back Better Agenda offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for major investments in water infrastructure including removing lead pipes and rebuilding aging sewage systems, as well as fighting climate change by expanding the clean energy sector and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This plan not only improves the quality of life for people right now, but it also protects the planet for future generations.

“We have to make sure that we’re thinking about the big picture. It’s really important that we all take bold action together in order to reverse climate change as best as we can.”

Build Back Better for Us: Missy Stults’ Story

Most people don’t see the ecosystems at play in every single aspect of our lives, but Missy Stults is not most people. Initially, ocean ecosystems captivated her, and she chose to study marine biology at the University of New England, however, one course in environmental ethics changed her entire career trajectory. To Missy, the intersectionality of the environmental, cultural, social, and economic implications of climate change reveal visible human ecosystems, both globally and locally.

“I will work on climate change until we solve the climate crisis. It’s not a job, it’s a life purpose for me,” says Missy.

After completing her marine biology and environmental science degree, she joined the very first cohort launched by Columbia University called Climate and Society. Later she received her PhD in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she works today as the sustainability and innovations manager for the city.

Most, if not all, of Missy’s work centers around the A²ZERO plan, a massive city-wide plan that lays out the steps necessary for Ann Arbor to become carbon neutral in a just and equitable way by 2030.

The A²ZERO plan features dozens of bold projects and initiatives. One of the programs includes transforming the electric system with a landfill solar project that will provide 24 megawatts of renewable energy to the community. Another project includes energy and weather efficiency improvements in homes beginning with a home health, safety & comfort assessment. Yet another project focuses on building electric vehicle infrastructure, and a handful of projects focus on policy change locally and regulatory reform at the state level.

“The Build Back Better Agenda would provide investments needed to catalyze the kind of change we want to see,” says Missy.

Of the countless positive changes these investments could make, perhaps the most influential would be the investments in the clean energy sector resulting in better paying, long-term, family sustaining jobs while protecting the health of the environment and the community within.

“The Build Back Better Agenda will provide new jobs in sustainable industries that can meet the demand that is necessary to prevent this climate crisis and we need that. We need more people doing this work. We need all hands on deck,” says Missy.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to make the investments that put American employees to work in good paying jobs that protect our health, safety and welfare and ensure that we have a livable planet for today and for future generations. The Build Back Better Agenda will put us as the vanguard on the bleeding front of solving the climate crisis and will lead to all kinds of economic opportunities that we can’t even imagine. Why in the world would we not make an investment in the American people?”

Build Back Better for Us: Lauren May’s Story

Healing is found in many forms, for Lauren May, healing is found running along the path in the woods outside her home in Traverse City. This healing, which she feels is integral to being a human, is one of the many reasons she devotes so much of her time to protecting not only the environment here in Michigan, but also fighting climate change on a global scale.

May is finishing up her junior year at Traverse City Central High School with a packed schedule. She runs track and cross country, is the president of the Students for Environmental Advocacy Club at her school, volunteers for the Sierra Club and with Michigan LCV as an Our Water Activist, and yet still finds time to get lost in the woods and marvel at passing deer and the beauty of the forest.

May credits the roots of her environmentalism to going vegetarian at nine years of age and reading books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She attended a climate strike in Traverse City in 2019 that coincided with the global climate strikes, and she realized the powerful potential of collective change as a society could have compared to simply making changes as an individual.

“Everybody has their own perspective and everybody you know is worth considering as a future activist in some way,” says May.

May plans to continue her journey in environmentalism throughout her college career. She’s leaning towards working in environmental law or policy to bring her closer to her goals of making big changes to protect the planet.

“I want to use my career and want to focus my life on being able to make those changes firsthand and advocate for them,” says May.

May believes the time to act is now, and the action taken must be remarkable, for time is running out and consequences will be dire.

“We have like a decade or so before we can’t make any further action,” says May passionately, “We have a chance to take that bold action. Millions of people could die from the repercussions of climate change in some way.”

“We need to transition our economy to cleaner sources of energy, and we need to have a lens of environmental justice. The American Jobs plan presents a bold vision to take action on climate change and set our country up for a healthier, more prosperous future.”