Turning up the HEET

HANCOCK – The Houghton County Energy Efficiency Team kicked off the planning phase of its effort to win the $5 million Georgetown University Energy Prize with a community brainstorming meeting Wednesday at the Finnish American Heritage Center.

The goal of the meeting was to propose and prioritize strategies county residents, businesses and municipalities can take to improve energy efficiency and affordability in the county, said HEET leader and Michigan Technological University Keweenaw Research Center Engineer Abhilash Kantamneni.

Currently, Kantamneni said, Houghton County has some of the highest electric rates in the country, and he believes a “top-down” approach of asking state government and power companies to fix the problem is unlikely to be effective on its own.

“Our task today is to begin to figure out how we as a community can get out of this mess,” he said. “We need to think how we as a community can solve our own problems.”

Kantamneni asked participants to consider three key questions, “What is your energy vision? What do you need?” and “What can you offer?” before sharing their thoughts in small groups and prioritizing ideas.

Richelle Winkler, a sociology professor and community development specialist at Tech who facilitated the community visioning portion of the meeting, said each group’s ideas would then be passed on to a team of Tech grad students who would by November 10 turn them into an energy plan to submit to the Georgetown Prize judges.

According to a handout on the prize, all of the 52 quarterfinalist communities that submit a credible plan will move on to the semifinalist category, and will then spend two years putting their plans into action and reducing energy consumption.

“We’ll have two years to make change, a lot of work for two or three years,” Winkler said.

The final stage of the competition will begin in January 2017, when communities will submit final reports and be judged in categories including how innovative and replicable their ideas are, how well they highlight best practices, and how well they educate the public and collaborate with schools.

One quarter of each community’s score will be based on the actual decrease in usage of electricity and natural gas, and Houghton County Commissioner Tom Tikkanen noted Houghton County wouldn’t even be in the running without the help of the Upper Peninsula Power Company and Semco Energy, both of which have agreed to share their records with Georgetown to document usage change.

Winkler noted that while many of the HEET’s leaders are Tech-affiliated, HEET is a community organization, and people from all facets of the community have become involved.

“Today we’ve got people from the utilities, local businesses, regional planning leaders, church groups, and more,” she said. “It’s about all of the people in Houghton County and beyond.”

There was no shortage of ideas once the about 80 community members on hand got down to brainstorming. At one table, priorities included increasing local power generation; producing some of that power through recycling animal waste and other biomass; changing laws that allow power companies to limit net metering, the process used to buy back power produced by private solar and wind generation; and improving energy efficiency in individual homes.

One local nonprofit on hand, New Power Tour, Inc., specializes in exactly that, offering home winterization checklists and, for low- and moderate-income families, even free winterizations from volunteer teams.

Kantamneni said he was impressed with the ideas he heard coming out of the groups. After working on the project for six months, he said, “tonight I’ve heard things I’ve never even thought about.”

Along with innovative thinking, Kantamneni said he was impressed with the commitment of county residents from all walks of life who showed up at the meeting, a commitment exemplified by Dollar Bay resident Cindy Barth.

“I’d like to learn how to have cheaper electricity, and what I can do to help,” Barth said.

To learn more about the HEET team, look it up on Facebook. For help with winterization, go to newpowertour.com.