Jim MacInnes, co-owner and president of Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa, next to the resort’s dual charging station for electric cars. According to the US Department of Energy, it’s one of only two public charging stations in Northern Michigan and one of 86 in the state. The area’s other public charging station is located at the Old Town Parking Deck in Traverse City.
A green leader talks about how to power Northern Michigan
Jim MacInnes is president and co-owner of Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa near Thompsonville, making him Benzie County’s, and one of the region’s, largest employer.
MacInnes is also an avid environmentalist, and he has become a model for business owners who value conservation of resources along with turning a profit.
At Crystal Mountain, the Crystal Spa is the Midwest’s only LEED certified spa and fitness center. The resort has won awards for environmental stewardship from the Sierra Club and the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council. Last year, the Detroit Free Press named MacInnes one of the state’s 16 Green Leaders.
As environmental and energy issues continue to flare up and remain prominent in Northern Michigan, the Express sat down with MacInness to talk about where the region should get its power in the future and about driving an electric car.
Northern Express: How did you wind up so passionate about energy and environmental issues?
Jim MacInnes: I became interested about 35 years ago when studying energy and environmental issues in school. And I took a class in ecology and classes in energy engineering, and that kind of piqued my interest.
NE: As a business owner, does your interest in this stuff ever conflict with running a business?
MacInnes: It could, but we try to avoid that. We need energy and materials to operate our business, but we need to be good stewards, too. We need to reduce the flow of energy and materials as best we can to try to operate our business successfully while being more sustainable.
NE: What do more conservative business owners say about your positions?
MacInnes: They don’t really say much.
One of the things I try to do is talk about energy and environmental issues with business people, because business people are doing a lot of things, making a lot of things happen, and they have the opportunity to make a positive difference. And so if you can get them thinking about the issue, it can be a plus for everyone.
NE: What’s the biggest energy issue facing Northern Michigan right now?
MacInnes: I think one of the facts is that we are burning coal, we are buying coalfired power and that’s exacerbating climate change, which is not a good thing for anybody. It’s probably the major environmental issue facing the world, that and water. And, also not having enough energy supply to power our economy. There are really no easy answers. It seems like people want to turn the light switch on, they want electricity, but they’re not willing to approve a power plant. Not just coal plants, but hydro plants, wind plants, biomass plants. Most people seem to like solar photovoltaic, but that’s limited and of course people don’t want transmission line towers. I think we have a real issue here in that our economy and all our businesses rely on energy, and every energy supply has its impacts. Some are much more benign than others, but we can’t seem to reach a consensus on what we need to do.
NE: You’ve been a supporter of biomass and that’s put you at odds with some environmentalists who fear biomass will lead to cutting down forests and pollution from plant emissions.
MacInnes: I actually have quite a bit of experience with biomass. I used to develop and finance biomass power plants in northern California many years ago, and we were one of the first companies that did it under what they call the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act. And while biomass has its issues, I don’t think you have to design it in such a way that it’s going to take all the forests. It just doesn’t make sense. You design it sensibly. And yes, it does have its impacts. It uses water, there are some CO2 issues, but you always have to look at it compared to the opportunity costs.
Right now, for example, Traverse City Light and Power is buying more than 80 percent coal-fired power, so I think you have to look at it vis-a-vis the opportunity costs. If you decide you don’t want to do biomass, then what do you want to do? Nobody seems to be able to arrive at an answer. And I would also say that while conservation is a really important factor, you still need energy to do work. This is dictated by the first law of thermodynamics. We are going to have to come up with different energy supplies, and the question is, if you don’t like biomass, if you don’t like hydro, if you don’t like wind, what do you like? counties?
MacInnes: I think it’s disappointing. I think there’s been a lot of misinformation put out about wind. Michigan has a lot of wind potential, and it’s actually one of the most cost-effective energy supplies and one of the most benign, with relatively minor impacts. However, we respect the concerns of the community and the process that’s taking place. I served on the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council and we studied the impacts with offshore wind from all over the world and the environmental impacts are fairly small compared to just about any energy technology. So I am a big supporter of wind. I think we also need to have transmission infrastructure that goes with it. We are very fortunate to have the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, which is one of the world’s largest energy storage batteries, which really helps being able to store the energy from wind.
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the cost to back up wind too. Really, the costs to back up wind are only about 0.5 cents a kilowatt hour, so it’s pretty inexpensive and it reduces carbon. I mean, it just has so many pluses. It’s one of the best opportunities, plus it creates jobs and we’ve got a lot of it.
NE: What do you think about the controversy over the proposed wind development in Manistee and Benzie
NE: What do you think about natural gas and the possibility that fracking for natural gas could lead to pollution?
MacInnes: It’s a real issue and I think people are very concerned about it, as they should be. I think our need for energy is so great, we’re going to have to figure something out. We’re going to have to either strengthen the rules, you know, make sure that we don’t have spills or have problems with it. But relative to coal, particularly, it’s a very clean fuel and there appears now to be quite a bit of it. Although I think we need to be careful, too, because the US currently burns about 22 percent natural gas for its electricity supply, which is quite a bit. Also, natural gas is used for a very important process, called the Haber-Bosch process, to make fertilizer. That helps to feed the world’s seven billion people, so we want to save the natural gas for that. We also want to save some of the natural gas for heating homes and for process heat. It’s hard to run an industrial process with electricity. So while I think there are some opportunities for natural gas, I don’t think we want to bet everything on natural gas, and a lot of others in the energy world share that opinion.
NE: What can people do in their day-today lives to help?
MacInnes: That’s a great question.
There’s a lot we can all do. We can ride our bicycles more. I see that Traverse City just passed a complete streets ordinance. We can design our communities to be denser, walkable communities. We can eat more vegetables and buy more local food. We can walk out of the room and shut off the lights. We can drive electric vehicles, which if used more throughout the US, will definitely reduce greenhouse gases. We must do everything we reasonably can to reduce our consumption of energy and materials so they will be available for future generations.
NE: You were one of the first people to get a Chevrolet Volt. What’s driving an electric car been like?
MacInnes: It’s been interesting, driving the Chevy Volt. I got it in March. I have about 15,000 miles on it now. It’s been a really fun car. And it’s especially fun driving by the gas station. But it’s also a comfortable car and it’s very good on the freeways. It’s also a conservation car because every time you come to a stop, you’re not using energy, and when you break, you’re storing energy, and when you go down a hill, you’re storing energy. I can go about 40 miles on a charge, which costs about a dollar, but even after that it will go about another 360 miles on gasoline. Because of the energy conservation attributes of the car it gets between 38 and 50 miles to a gallon of gasoline.
NE: Are we going to be able to drive electric cars through our Northern Michigan winters?
MacInnes: I think so. I’m certainly planning on doing that. I mean, it’s a little tricky warming the cabin up but I did drive it in March, and it handled well in the snow. Cold temperatures reduce the distance a little bit. I think it went down to 33 miles on a charge instead of 40. I was able to drive almost 50 miles on electricity in the summer when the temperature warmed up, so the temperature of the battery does make a difference. We have a high-capacity charging station at home, and a dual charging station here at Crystal Mountain, so I can just go from charging station to charging station which I do every day. It takes about 4 hours for a full charge.