Wyandotte emerges as leader in energy
Once known for its dirty industry, Downriver town forms fresh identity with alternative power projects.
Tanveer Ali / The Detroit News
WYANDOTTE -- While high fuel costs have manufacturers and communities scrambling to beef up their environmental credentials, officials in this small Downriver community believe they're ahead of the curve.
From discarded tires to solar and wind power, Wyandotte, once considered an industrial city, has now become synonymous with the alternative energy movement, and environmental experts have taken notice.
"They're among the first movers in this area," said David Gard, energy policy specialist for the Michigan Environmental Council, referring to Wyandotte's role in taking measures to curb fossil fuel dependence. "They can move forward quickly when they have good ideas."
Wyandotte, home to one of the state's 44 municipally owned electric utilities, is the first Michigan community to propose an urban wind energy project. It has received $2 million in federal grants toward building five 1.8-megawatt wind turbines that would power 500 to 700 homes each.
Melanie McCoy, general manager of the city's utility company, said while coal will continue to provide energy in the city for years to come, Wyandotte hopes to reduce that dependence in anticipation of a state law requiring 10 percent of all energy to come from renewable sources by 2015.
Since 2000, the city's power plant has been burning used shredded tires, a cheaper, more efficient fuel than coal. Though it's not considered renewable energy by the state, it provides 16 percent of the power in the 70-megawatt plant. A few other plants in the state, including two in Grayling and Hillman, use the energy that in some cases might have lower emissions than at all-fossil fuel plants.
This spring, the Wyandotte school district installed solar panels at Wilson Middle School. Though the panels provide only 2 percent of the school's energy needs, it serves as a model for the other energy conservation projects undertaken throughout Downriver by Wyandotte-based Kulick Enterprises. The company will also install solar panels for the music stage at next month's Wyandotte's Street Art Fair.
McCoy views the big and the small energy efforts in Wyandotte as a communitywide effort, with individuals playing just as vital a role as the utilities firm.
"Because we are smaller and more nimble, we're able to investigate these," she said. "The community as a whole has been able to look at all those alternatives."
The city has been notorious for being near the steel plants on Zug Island and home to Wyandotte Chemical, which was acquired by BASF in 1967. Residents claim that at one time chemical odors pervaded the air. Now, McCoy said, BASF is a model environmental neighbor. One of the wind turbines is expected to be planted on its property.
Longtime resident Sylvia Jagielski said the city has come a long way environmentally from the days when she would wake up and find her swimming pool with a film of black soot from the nearby factories.
Today, like many others in her hometown, Jagielski has taken to the little things to reduce her carbon footprint: install energy efficient lighting, conserve water and recycle everything.
"People are very conscious of this, more so in this area, perhaps because of being industrial," said Jagielski, 64. "When you have to live somewhere, you want it to be good. You want it to be pure."
The Rev. Charles Morris, founder of the nonprofit Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, has been a motivator for much of the change. An environmental adviser to the city since a "conversion experience" nearly two decades ago when he was challenged by a parish member, he has served on the commission of the city utility company, overseeing many of the changes it has made.
His St. Elizabeth's Church on Goddell and Second sports eight solar panels and wind turbines. Though those power sources cost $20,000 to install, combined with a new boiler and other improvements, the church saves more than $25,000 in energy costs per year.
"Morris gave me the inspiration to say, wow, this is a good idea," McCoy said.
Still, Wyandotte hasn't had a spotless record. In 2006, the city received a notice from the Environmental Protection Agency alleging its plants violated the Clean Air Act by releasing excessive amounts of nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide over a two-year period.
While the city initially argued that there were some reporting inconsistencies, McCoy now says the city may have released excessive emissions and expects to receive additional guidelines from the agency. The EPA would not comment on the "ongoing enforcement action."
Municipally owned utilities and smaller communities have been among the first to make a move with alternative energy. Traverse City Light & Power installed a turbine in 1996, while private investors helped put up turbines in Mackinac City and the Thumb.
Other Downriver communities have been slower to adapt alternative energy policies, with several communities and developers voicing reluctance to putting up overhead costs. But with rising fuel costs and government funding for energy projects, the state's specialist Gard expects more projects in the future.
Nearby Taylor is one of the cities looking to jump on the eco-friendly trend. Mayor Cameron G. Priebe said a yearlong study expected to end in October looks promising and may result in the purchase of two $1.5 million wind turbines that would power 1,500 homes. The city also received $116,000 in grants to power a building with solar energy in Heritage Park.
Lifelong Downriver resident Frank Mangiapane owns Wyandotte-based Silver Lining Recycling, which provides shredded tires to the power plant. Like other natives, he says he's noticed a change in the quality of life with its new environmental focus.
"We've come to the point that we could eat the fish without concern to health and well-being," Mangiapane said.
McCoy said Wyandotte may be experimenting with more ideas.
McCoy's next idea? River current energy.