Opinion | Can Economies of Scale scale-up prosperity for all Michiganders?

Downtown Grand Rapids Michigan view from the Grand River

Economies of scale make green, capital investment a no-brainer; let’s go a step further!

Written By Cameron Kritikos, Mobilizing and Advocacy Fellow of the CRC Office of Social Justice

The city I reside in can feel like 2 different worlds - a separation of wealth, capital, and opportunity. And I wonder if the chasm of opportunity, the void of equal opportunity and justice, is widening.

In 2018, Grand Rapids was ranked by Headlight Data as the 7th fastest growing economy in the U.S., based on Gross Regional Product (GRP) over the last five years. Our city is growing swiftly with businesses moving in, condos and apartment complexes popping up, and media outlets hailing West Michigan as a hub for innovation and quality of life.

Keynote Majora Carter at the 2019 Michigan Energy Summit

Keynote Speaker Majora Carter, a leading urban revitalization strategy consultant, remarked that in the same ways that ecosystems benefit from biodiversity, cities benefit from a diversity of industries, ideas, and neighborhoods collectively thriving. And yet, in our city, a distinct monoculture creates, attracts, and sustains wealth generation after generation and leaves vast swaths of the city both disenfranchised and neglected.

Last Thursday’s Michigan Energy Summit was a celebration of ‘winners’, and rightfully so. These industry leaders, schools, entertainment venues, and office buildings have since 2014 diverted 136,000 metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere and reallocated over $14 million in energy savings back into the local economy. Their efforts should be applauded because, as climate scientists and thought-leaders have long remarked, it’s going to take the collective efforts of institutions and governments to bold steps towards clean energy production.

As I sat and listened to presentations from utility companies and leading research universities, I wondered, as I often do in my work, “what would justice require of us?”

For decades, political figures and change-makers have known that a large-scale

transition to renewable energy would be required to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, which includes everything from food and water shortages to ecosystem collapse. It is also no surprise that the cost of renewable energy installations and transitions has decreased significantly. At the same time the IPCC Report and Fourth National Climate Assessment - reports highlighting the magnitude of the climate crisis - cities and states across the nation are rushing towards bold action.

But why now? The aforementioned reports were damning, but they were hardly news. Large-scale transitions to renewable energy are rooted in large part to economies of scale that have made it fiscally feasible for cities, states, and utility companies to begin investing in these energy sources. And I admit that I understand; finances are important. They run the game, and with renewable energy being relatively affordable, we should be doing everything in our power to transition today. But let’s be honest about something:

This stance is anthropocentric at its core, and beyond that, it puts profit above both people and planet. What if we believed that, profits aside, we need to be in right relationship with the earth and our neighbor regardless of what it does to our bottom line?

What if Circuit West - a recently built $5 million array of 1,800 solar panels - was just the start, and capital investment for renew energy projects could solve multiple problems at once? Targeted investment by Consumers Energy and Rockford Construction, who collaborated on Circuit West, could create jobs paying a living-wage and help Michigan move towards a clean energy future. Green jobs and capital investment in under-resourced neighborhoods, where air quality and economic well-being are lacking, could be nursed back to health. 

The City of Grand Rapids’ Strategic Plan, presented to the City Commission just last week, outlines equity, innovation, and sustainability, among others, as main values driving appropriations and objectives. This tells me that it’s possible to close the separation of worlds that exists in our city, and there’s political will to create a Grand Rapids that invests in people and infrastructure, sustainability and economic innovation.

This is possible. This can be our future. Energy innovation and an equitable city for all can happen in our lifetime, if only we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work.