Here's how Ann Arbor and Ypsi are leading Michigan in pursuing climate action

A new report celebrates Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti as two of at least 16 trailblazing Michigan communities that have set goals to become carbon-neutral or to use 100% renewable energy.
All Michigan communities must play a part to achieve Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's goal for the state to be carbon-neutral by 2050. And, according to a new report released by the Michigan Climate Action Network (MiCAN), two Washtenaw County communities are among those leading the charge.

"Nothing short of clear and immediate action is needed, and Washtenaw County is finding ways to move forward with some really bold climate action plans," says Kate Madigan, MiCAN's director. "It's really exciting that people are strongly committed to reducing their emissions and have come up with some really complex and admirable goals."

MiCAN's report, titled "Michigan Communities Leading on Climate," celebrates Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti as two of at least 16 trailblazing Michigan communities that have set goals to become carbon-neutral or to use 100% renewable energy. The report outlines each community's climate goals and provides a list of components that signal strong local climate policies. Also included are case studies of how four Michigan communities are moving not only urgently, but equitably, to tackle the climate crisis, with Ann Arbor topping the list. 
Solar powered EV charging stations at 4th Avenue and Catherine Street in Ann Arbor.
"When Ann Arbor set the goal to be carbon-neutral by 2030 it was, and may still be, the most ambitious goal of any city in the United States," Madigan says. "Their 44-point action plan to get to 100% renewable energy is really, really detailed in the strategies. There is a clear timeline for implementation, and there is also the recognition of what it will all cost."

Madigan points to key strategies in Ann Arbor's A2ZERO Action Plan – such as focusing on making all buildings energy-efficient, transitioning to electric vehicles, reducing vehicle miles traveled, planting trees, implementing solar-power initiatives, and reducing waste by creating a circular economy – as just a few reasons why the city's goals and policies are spotlighted. 

"Anyone could just announce a goal and not follow up on it, but Ann Arbor is actually an example of a city digging in, making change equitably, and showing us that taking bold actions can make a difference," she says.

The report highlights that the city used existing funds and grants to install two megawatts of rooftop solar, build 110 electric vehicle charging stations, add two electric garbage trucks, and electrify 20% of the city’s vehicle fleet. Energy efficiency at affordable housing units has been boosted, and 1,800 trees have been planted in underserved neighborhoods. The launch of a reusable takeout container campaign and year-round curbside composting also got a nod. 
Ann Arbor sustainability and innovations manager Missy Stults.
"We've been running a sprint and a marathon at the same time. If we want to be serious about climate action, then we need to do everything we can possibly imagine," says Missy Stults, Ann Arbor’s sustainability and innovations manager. "We decided we just can't wait until 2030 and then rip the Band-Aid off. We're making all kinds of aggressive and audacious actions now so that 2030 is actually possible."

Stults says more must be done, and she and her team are refusing to rest on their laurels. They just released a survey to get public input as to whether or not the city should move forward with a Sustainability Energy Utility (SEU). The SEU would be a 100% community-owned energy utility that provides electricity from local solar and battery storage systems installed on homes and businesses throughout Ann Arbor. 

"We did a lot of technical, legal, and economic analysis and found out that this is a possible pathway to be more reliable, affordable, and resilient than our current energy infrastructure," Stults says. "It would be supplemental and give our residents a bold choice."

She's also looking forward to continuing the work her team has been doing in tandem with community organizations and residents (who are primarily people of color) in Ann Arbor's Bryant neighborhood. Called The Bryant Project, the initiative has been unfolding for the last 18 months and will see the low-income community transformed into the very first carbon-neutral neighborhood in America.

Challenges to climate action

City of Ypsilanti Project Manager Bonnie Wessler says she likes to remind people that sustainability is an ongoing process as local leaders strive to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. Ypsilanti adopted a carbon-neutrality resolution, which very closely mirrors Ann Arbor's, in 2019 and formally set its sustainability plan last year. 

"It's been really nice to have all our goals spelled out and neat and easy to reference," Wessler says. "... Energy is really where a lot of the meat is and right now we are working on communicating with residents and bringing awareness to what we need to do."

Wessler adds that as the city moves forward with its goals, looking at solutions through an equity lens is important. She reports that the impact of Ypsilanti's sustainability plan is evident through the work the city has been doing with the Washtenaw County Conservation District to strategically plant trees and mitigate urban heat island effect. In a nutshell, urban heat island effect occurs where there's more pavement in an environment, leading to more extreme swings in temperature. This often has a disproportionate effect upon homes that don't have access to climate control or air conditioning.

"Ypsilanti neighborhoods with fewer trees and lower-income populations are disproportionately affected, and may suffer from related negative health impacts such as higher rates of asthma," Wessler says. "So a highlight is that our most vulnerable populations are prioritized as part of the sustainability plan. We are working towards making sure that everyone is served equally by our initiatives as we move forward."
City of Ypsilanti Project Manager Bonnie Wessler.
She adds that the city is fortunate to be supported by "a very passionate" sustainability commission and a new communications manager, who are helping move the plan forward. So far, momentum and community support has been plentiful. Funding, however, is a foreseeable challenge.

"Ultimately, what is slowing us down is what would slow anybody down. If we had a few million dollars to be able to throw at everything, we'd be able to affect change much more quickly than we are now," Wessler says. "But we are still finding ways to be successful and we're going to keep working on hitting our objectives over time."

Funding is also a concern for Ann Arbor, despite having a larger staff and budget than Ypsilanti. To achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, the city will need $1 billion. However, Ann Arbor residents will have a chance to vote on a 20-year community climate action millage this November. The possibilities have Stults both nervous and excited.

"It's never been as simple as walking into a meeting and saying, 'We're gonna go ahead and put solar everywhere,' and then they thank you and tell you that they've been just waiting to give you millions of dollars," she says. "I'm hopeful that residents recognize the climate crisis, and I think if they can support us then we can not only support our city, but replicate programs and policies that can be used to help all our neighbors across Washtenaw County."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.