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A Blue-Collar Michigan Town Goes Green

A solar array atop a water filtration plant in Wyandotte, Mich.

A solar array atop a water filtration plant in Wyandotte, Mich.

The state of Michigan has mandated that municipalities generate 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015. Wyandotte, a 24,000-resident enclave downriver from Detroit, is at 30 percent. “You think of places like Portland when it comes to green energy, but Wyandotte is this blue-collar community that just wants to get things right,” says John Sarver, who worked with the town when he was at the Michigan Energy Office.

The big push toward conservation and renewable energy came from a program of free energy audits for homes and businesses, says Paul LaManes, assistant general manager for Wyandotte Municipal Services. That was combined with 1.99 percent guaranteed loans to do those “unglamorous” things such as insulation and wiring.

Next the department extended loans for solar panels and committed to buy back the extra energy generated, so some residents now pay no utility bills. The local utility also offers incentives for homes to switch to geothermal energy. Funding for these programs has come from federal and state grants for “green projects.” The community recently secured a $100,000 award to switch all the streetlights on its two main roads into more efficient LEDs. Also on the agenda, a “brightfield” project that will turn a contaminated site once occupied by chemical and other industrial plants into a wind or solar farm.

“The big thing about Wyandotte is that they take their time and do their studies and all that due diligence,” says Sarver, now executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy. “I think that is what other cities can take away from this—it doesn’t have to be overnight.”

Wyandotte has begun running TV ads to publicize its energy programs in the hopes they will lure Detroit-area businesses and residents to move to the town. The tag line: Save a Watt in Wyandotte.

Strauss is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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