Wyandotte Gives A Watt!

Most Michigan cities got out of the energy business a long time ago. The roots of statewide giants DTE Energy and Consumers Energy go back more than a century. Whatever the advantages were that drew all but roughly 40 municipalities in Michigan to choose outside providers, Wyandotte took a different path. Today, the downriver community is proving how maintaining control allowed them to inspire their 25,000 residents to invest more than a million dollars in energy efficiency upgrades.
 
"We generate our own electricity, and we also buy off the grid," explains Wyandotte Municipal Services' Energy Systems Program Manager Pam Tierney. "We take advantage of that, so when the energy we can generate is cheaper, we use that, and then we can buy off the grid when it's cheaper there."
 
This hands-on approach to energy management put Wyandotte in a unique position to tackle the ever-present challenge of energy efficiency. So they did.
 
"People always say, 'You're the utility, don't you want to make more money?'" says Tierney. "Actually, we've always wanted to do renewable energy. No one wants to build more plants. We want people to use energy smarter. The smarter we use it and the more renewables we use, the cleaner it's going to be." 
 
Sure, there are statewide energy efficiency programs from the big guys. You can get a rebate from DTE Energy after purchasing a programmable thermostat, for example. But the city's proximity to their constituents, as well as their resourceful grant writing, has allowed them to develop, market and actually walk into people's homes to deliver their services, including free energy efficiency tools, energy audits and low-interest loans.
 
Here's how it works:
 
"We went out looking for grants and got a $3.8 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant from the Department of Energy," says Tierney. 
 
The funds would allow the city to roll out a unique, three-part energy efficiency program called "Save a Watt in Wyandotte," which kicked off in early 2011. Level One includes a home energy assessment including tips for improving efficiency, and products such as energy saving showerheads, aerators and CFL light bulbs - all for free. The second level gives residents discounts on more comprehensive efficiency upgrades. Level Three offers both discounts and low interest loans on the most expensive energy investments, such as insulation, furnace or air conditioning replacements, and geothermal energy system installation.
 
In December of 2011, Save a Watt in Wyandotte got a boost from the Better Buildings for Michigan program, which offers similar energy audit services to targeted cities throughout the state, allowing the extra programming Wyandotte had in place to go even farther. 
 
While that all sounds pretty impressive, here's the most amazing part: people are using the program.
 
"We do both residential and commercial," says Tierney, "and our goal was to do 2000 properties combined. We're at about 1500 just on the residential side. We're pretty pleased. Wyandotte's not a rich town, but our residents have spent over one million dollars in energy upgrades they have paid for themselves."
 
That's in addition to the free stuff that came along with the grant and the easy tips for increased efficiency participants received during their assessments. Those small improvements, Tierney says, actually make a tremendous impact.
 
"Even though we definitely encourage geothermal and solar," she says, "I always tell people that the first thing they need to do is the non-glamorous stuff - the insulation, getting rid of those cracks around the window. It's not sexy, but those are sort of the first lines of the defense." 
 
One of the Save a Watt in Wyandotte participants who reaped both the more pedestrian and sexier benefits of the program is Gilbert Rose, owner of the Downtown Wyandotte department stores, Chelsea Menswear and Willow Tree. Rose has installed a new energy efficient lighting system and, most recently, a $68,000 solar energy system to his Chelsea Menswear building.
 
"I see the utility bills and they were extravagant," says Rose. "Between lighting and air conditioning, utilities are a major part of our expense structure. Anything I can do to minimize those sensibly is good but the payback has to make sense."
 
Though the solar panels have only been in place for two billing cycles, Rose is already seeing $500 to $700 savings each month. "That's significant," Rose says. "Four years down the road, everything is paid off. And that goes on forever." 
 
It helps that Rose wasn't alone in his investment. Wyandotte Municipal Services helped him secure a $12,000 loan for the project and tax incentives will help him receive a 30 percent tax credit on his remaining investment. Having his local unit of government present him with those opportunities and walk him through the process wasn't a bad perk either. 
 
"I think it means our Department of Municipal Services is thinking along the right lines," Rose says. "This isn't something I ever would have considered on my own. I wouldn't have begun to understand a project like that."
 
Rose's investment in energy efficiency is a notable illustration: Department stores like Chelsea Menswear and Willow Tree used to thrive in downtowns 70 years ago. Today, Rose's shops are a rarity. Whatever his secret has been, being a part of a community that helps his landmark businesses become as energy efficient as possible is bound to help him through the next 70.
 
"We're at that transition point right now," says Melanie McCoy, Wyandotte Municipal Services' general manager, speaking on the future of Save a Watt in Wyandotte, which is reaching the end of its grant funds. "There are a couple of areas that we are trying to make sustainable." 
 
Though the incentives may not be as rich as they were under the grant-funded program, officials are looking a ways to retain some of them. For now, residents and commercial property owners are encouraged to take advantage of the program post haste. As Rose will tell anyone who asks, the only regret to be had is missing out.
 
"When I heard about it, I said, 'That sounds like a no-brainer,'" he says. "We love the idea of participating in this program." 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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