More thoughts from the Michigan’s Future: Energy, Economy and Environment conference held at Crystal Mountain, near Traverse City, November 14–16.
For many years now, environmental experts and traditional business leaders have argued back and forth over a fundamental point of economics. Environmentalists on the one hand assert that making environmental progress is not a drag on the economy, but quite the opposite, it stimulates new businesses and improves the value of places better off because they are cleaner.
Business has typically countered that environmental costs raise operating expenses and make it nearly impossible to compete, especially with overseas companies that can pollute all they want.
I admit that I am partial to the argument put forth by the environmentalists. It may be too simplistic, but I’ve often thought Just look at our neighborhoods. Does anybody think that homes in a dirty neighborhood tainted with industrial fallout are somehow worth more than homes in a clean neighborhood? Or look at the auto industry today. Is there anybody still out there who believes that the car companies made a good business decision by not responding to the realities of our environmental limitations?
One encouraging message I heard at the Crystal Mountain conference is that in some areas at least, the business community is starting to see that smart environmental decisions equate to smart business decisions.
Sarna Salzman, executive director of SEEDS, sounded this message in her address to the opening session on Friday evening. Her company is living proof that smart environmental investment is profitable. SEEDS is a non-profit company that works with both private and government organizations to analyze systems and energy use and come up with more cost-effective and environmentally wise options. It is a myth, she said, that we can only have a clean environment at the expense of business. “Environmental entrepreneurs are the future,” she said.
I was of course encouraged to hear this in the opening session, but concede that one would expect Salzman to send this message, since it is, after all, the heart of her business. So in many ways I was even more heartened when I heard this message echoed the next morning by Jack Hanson, vice president of generation engineering and service for CMS Energy.
Michigan, Hanson said, has the second oldest fleet of power plants in the nation. The glass-half-full view of that situation is that opportunity awaits. As Michigan powers up for the 21st century, alternative energy can find a ready market. CMS has already secured wind leases on 28,000 acres. And wind means not just clean power for the state, but also good manufacturing jobs. A windmill has 8,000 working parts, “and if there’s one thing Michigan is good at it’s making parts,” Hansen said.
The state is also home to two of the nation’s leading solar panel manufacturers. “And Michigan-based Whirlpool is a leader in smart appliance development,” Hansen said.
Of course, only time will tell whether or not Michigan’s business leaders truly believe changes smart for the environment are also smart for their bottom line, but I feel we will see actions that stay true to the rhetoric. The evidence we are now seeing in terms of global warming and peak oil is very compelling, and the smart investors will be working on finding solutions, not hiring lawyers and lobbyists to ensure that denial of reality is a formalized government policy.–Jeff Smith, Editor