Renewable Energy is Everywhere! ELPC Intern Perspective

Clean energy might seem like a far-off dream, but in reality, it is booming all around us. As an intern at the Environmental Law & Policy Center this year, I had the opportunity to work alongside fellow interns and expert staff to help assemble two reports about the growing renewable energy supply chain. Right here in the Midwest, there are thousands of workers in the green economy, and I had the great opportunity to hear some of their stories.

This month we released a new supply chain report on Michigan, and the next one on Wisconsin will be released in January. These reports are part of a long-term project at ELPC to document the breadth of the wind and solar energy industries in the Midwest. Each publication includes company listings, profiles, images, and maps, as well as information and recommendations for state and federal policies that can support clean energy. After a lot of research and writing and an estimated 200 phone calls, I wanted to share some key takeaways from my experience exploring the world of renewable energy.

Why Renewables?

Three men install a large ground-mounted solar panel, with one on a ladder, helping bring clean renewable energy to the Midwest.
Installing solar panels. Peninsula Solar, Marquette, MI.

Clean energy provides many benefits, reducing pollution and carbon emissions while providing jobs for local businesses. There are countless reasons why folks get involved with clean energy, and here’s what some people had to say:

  • “Electricity is a national security issue,” said Mark Hagerty, founder of Michigan Solar Solutions (Wixom, MI). “Our current grid is our Achilles heel.” To Hagerty, investing in solar is a way to make our grid safer.
  • “Wind is important to our company, because it has had a significant contribution to our overall revenue growth,” said John Greulich, Director of Sales at PSI Repair Services, Inc. in Livonia, MI. PSI didn’t start as a clean energy business, but adding wind repair services has been great for business.
  • “We believe we’re in a crisis,” says Al Waller, founder of Speed Solar in Deerfield, WI. “And we believe that solar is a big part of the solution. That’s why we started a solar business… because we have grandchildren and we hope to have some planet left for them to survive in after we’re passed on.”
  • “Solar benefits a triple bottom line,” says Ian Olmsted, founder of Peninsula Solar in the UP’s Marquette, MI. “It is… good for individual people, it can lower costs for homeowners and businesses, and it is environmentally responsible.”

Clean Energy Crosses Many Industries

A worker helps put a massive wind turbine in place on bolts, bringing clean renewable energy to the Midwest.
Installing a wind turbine. Heritage Sustainable Energy, Traverse City, MI.

When I started my research, I was blown away by the variety of companies involved in the clean energy supply chain. Folks connect with this multifaceted industry in so many ways, from large-scale installation to tiny components manufacturing, and from the obvious to the downright surprising. Here’s a look at a few that I thought were the most interesting.

Hidden Parts – The motor inside a wind turbine can break down over time, but a company like Gearbox Express (Mukwonago, WI) can remanufacture the broken generator. At the base of a turbine, companies like Wind Secure (Lake Orion, MI) protect base bolts from corrosion. And did you know that wind turbines need brakes? Companies like Magnetek (Menominee Falls, WI) keep things spinning at safe speeds with brakes that can put a stop to even the largest turbines when necessary.

Big Picture – Wind and solar installations don’t just come out of nowhere, they take careful planning and big-picture thinking. Architects like Archiopolis (Ann Arbor, MI) and design companies like Burns McDonnell (Madison, WI) ensure Midwestern communities get smart, safe, and efficient renewable energy projects.

A bright yellow street sign blinks to indicate pedestrians are present, with a solar panel on top providing the clean renewable energy to power the lightbulbs.
Solar-powered street sign. TAPCO, Brown Deer, WI.

Making it Happen – Companies like Evans Transportation Services (Brookfield, WI) navigate the region’s roads to make sure solar panels and wind turbines get where they need to go. Then construction contractors bring it all together. Michels Corp (Brownsville, WI) and Barton Malow (Southfield, MI) are two of the biggest contractors in the region. They hire union workers to install wind and solar farms to power thousands of homes and businesses.

Surprising Solar – Clean energy has been incorporated into a number of amazing uses. TAPCO (Brown Deer, WI) makes our streets safer with transportation signage that uses lights powered by little solar panels. You can even use the power of the sun for your plumbing needs with a solar hot water heater from companies like O’Leary Plumbing & Heating (East Troy, WI) or GLE Solar Energy (St. Joseph, MI).

The Wide Reach of Renewable Energy

Map showing pins for wind and solar companies across Michigan.
Michigan map of wind and solar energy companies.

As this project came to a close, one of my favorite moments came when we brought all our research together into finished state maps. Looking at it all together, you can really see how green jobs are ubiquitous across our region. There are so many different businesses in the clean energy supply chain, and the reach is so much larger than I realized. From Grand Rapids to Green Bay, Chippewa Falls to Charlevoix, and Kalamazoo to Kenosha, clean energy is shaping the Midwest, and the Midwest is shaping the world.

One company we profiled, SES Flexcharge (Charlevoix, MI), makes controllers which regulate the batteries for renewable energy sources on every continent. They said nearly 70% of the projects in Antarctica run on their controllers. Michigan-based Hemlock Semiconductor produces polysilicon, a critical building block for virtually all electronics and solar panels. The company provides for about 1/3 of the world’s computer chips. As Business Development Manager Phil Rausch put it, “the smart phone in your pocket likely has Hemlock polysilicon in it.”

Conclusion

Though my experience working on the supply chain reports this summer taught me many things—including how to master cold-calling manufacturing companies—my biggest takeaway was understanding that more businesses and industries are involved in renewable energy than ever before. As ELPC’s Senior Staff Attorney Margrethe Kearney put it, “Clean energy is not some specialized piece of the economy, it is the economy.” I love the Midwest, and I’m glad to know that clean energy means good jobs for our communities and a cleaner environment in special places like the Great Lakes and the Northwoods. Thank you to all the workers and entrepreneurs who help make it happen.

To read our most recent reports, click here.

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