Fellow Feature: The Unique Opportunity for Small Towns to Achieve Energy Goals

By Heather Nugen, Eaton Rapids community development fellow

Photo from https://www.michigan.org/city/eaton-rapids

I moved to Eaton Rapids, Michigan last fall as part of CEDAM’s year-long community development fellowship. I have been living in larger urban areas for most of my life, but cities with lush landscapes aren’t unfamiliar to me. I grew up in Spokane, Washington, never more than 20 minutes from uncultivated land.

One of the things that attracted me to Eaton Rapids was the community’s emphasis on conservation and environmental stewardship. We often think of these values as belonging only to environmentalists and Department of Natural Resources employees. My time here has made it clear that this community’s identity is intimately tied to its natural setting on the banks of the Grand River. Even though I have only lived here for a few months, the local appreciation for the outdoors and the preservation of natural spaces is clear: while the city is only 3.4 square miles, it contains 14 well-visited parks.

The City of Eaton Rapids was awarded a Community Energy Management grant from the Michigan Energy Office in early 2019, which I will be administering as part of my fellowship responsibilities. This will include energy audits for four city owned properties, to identify a strategy for increasing energy efficiency and helping to manage government spending on energy. The program also offers support for communities looking to participate in the Michigan Green Communities Challenge at one of three different green certification levels, and assistance with green energy business development.

The close connection of this community with its natural environment is one that has been sorely undersung. Access to green, natural spaces is one of the key issues facing my generation and the generations that will follow; with cities and their sprawling networks of pavement often the focus of conversations about renewable energy and green space preservation, rural communities and small towns are often under the radar when they have a real opportunity to realize the goals that large metropolitan areas struggle to organize around.

Here are some quick facts about renewable energy in Michigan:

The opportunity for small communities lies at the level of local control; Eaton Rapids is one of a few smaller localities that does own its own generation facilities and manages energy consumption as a governmental unit. This makes the realization of renewable energy goals or even total energy independence so achievable.

Eaton Rapids is already on it’s way toward achieving some of these goals. In 2018, 30% of the city’s total energy consumption came from renewable sources, and the community is already host to a solar farm which it will eventually own. It is also host to a couple of small hydroelectric dams, which can generate up to 10% of the community’s current annual energy.

Notably, this year Eaton County adopted a Solar Ordinance to regulate an influx of solar companies looking to locate generation facilities on the county’s abundant farmland. Although this ordinance has stirred up some local controversy, one thing is clear: renewable energy is on the doorstep of this community and other communities like it. The only question left for communities to consider is whether or not they’ll seize the opportunity.

This is the first post in a ten-part series highlighting CEDAM’s community development fellows. Our Community Development Fellowship places fellows in Project Rising Tide communities to add capacity and help build strong planning, zoning and economic development plans. The fellows work with a local steering committee and implement transformational projects within their community.