Amy Butler speaks at the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council’s Energy Innovators Hall of Fame event in Lansing last month.

Lance Nelson Photography

Amy Butler speaks at the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council’s Energy Innovators Hall of Fame event in Lansing last month.

Q&A: How clean-energy policies drive economic development

Strong clean-energy policy not only has environmental benefits, but it can also provide a push for businesses and economic development.

That’s according to Amy Butler — the executive director of OU INC, a small-business incubator specializing in energy at Oakland University in Michigan — who sees it unfold everyday.

Butler, who spent two decades on the policy side working for the state of Michigan, has transitioned to the business side and sees how the two can interact with each other.

Encouraging the clean-energy sector through standards and incentives makes the case for businesses to come to Michigan, she says.

A recent report by the Environmental Law and Policy Center counted more than 300 businesses operating with the wind and solar supply chain here. Multiple reports have shown clean-energy investments nearing $3 billion and employing thousands in Michigan.

“Strong energy policy will attract energy-solution companies to the state,” Butler said.

As the state legislature moves toward new comprehensive energy policy as Michigan’s renewable and efficiency standards level off at the at the end of the year, Butler hopes whatever is agreed upon doesn’t stop the momentum built up from the 2008 law.

Last month, Butler was inducted into the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council’s Energy Innovators Hall of Fame. She spoke with Midwest Energy News about how the industry has changed over the past 20 years and what challenges remain.

Midwest Energy News: What are some of the latest clean-energy technologies coming out of OU INC?

Butler: A couple of companies are doing some things in battery development — one is developing a sodium battery system and another is looking at the controls of batteries and how to optimize those. We also have a company developing a system that recovers heat from waste water and uses it to reheat potable water.

We have two solar companies, and one that is really exciting is a large portable solar system that can be transported by truck. It opens up by itself and has a dual-tracking mechanism, so it’s able to provide tremendous resources for disaster relief and in remote locations. It can power a lot of resources at one time.

What does this innovation mean to you in the context of the transition from old energy models?

In our future, we’re going to have to have a diversification of resources to serve our power needs — it’s just the nature of demand and the nature of our connected world. Business models change. Technologies and innovation are ways for us to be able to serve the needs of the future.

It’s exciting for me to work with some of these new companies. Some are small and simple, some are large and complex, but all of them contribute to optimizing energy resources for a person or a company or a whole new business model that allows us to do things we couldn’t even fathom doing before. Innovation opens doors. It’s not just what you already know, but creating opportunities you never thought of before. That’s what the connected world will do.

After 20 years of experience in state government on the policy side, coming to this side and working with companies is a full circle for me. It’s been very exciting for me to work on each of those different levels and see how much each influences the other.

In those 20 years working at the state on energy policy, how did the energy industry change over that time, or how has it changed since then?

There have been dramatic changes. One is the result of awareness. When we launched some energy initiatives years ago, we started with small programs tailored to specific companies.

We looked at the business and environmental case, but we started looking at energy as an economic development tool. Many of our manufacturers in the late 2000s looked to diversify for the energy field as well. We looked at the entire economic side of energy as well as the environmental side. That’s one of the great advances we’ve made.

Then we put some laws in place that allowed us to establish a renewable portfolio standard and an efficiency standard. Utilities not only met those requirements but exceeded them. That helped build momentum and continues to carry on to reduce costs for renewable energy.

What do you think of the track Michigan lawmakers are on with energy policy?

That’s hard for me to answer at the moment. We’re continuing to work with them to refine that legislation. As it moves forward, I certainly believe the standards created positive momentum. I would hope the Integrated Resource Planning approach would not slow down that momentum, but we’re still in the process of developing that legislation.

A standard provides economic value as it creates jobs and drives innovation and enables companies to be globally competitive. We have to have companies be globally competitive or the economy is going to suffer. We need to make sure that whatever legislation or policy is in place has got to continue to support, encourage and move forward innovation.

How exactly can energy policies — be it state or federal — promote economic growth?

If you do not have a strong policy that supports the use of alternative energy, it’s going to be hard to get new innovations in the market. If there’s not a demand for new solutions, it’s hard to drive those new solutions and get them adopted. Also it’s a challenge for businesses when they’re looking to adopt energy efficiency or renewables to convince them to make expenditures to make those happen if there’s not that understanding and drive.

I think policy plays an important role of educating and providing momentum and opportunity to also attract businesses to the state.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for states and utilities as they transition to a low-carbon future?

I appreciate that utilities are a business and have to run a business. They have to figure out how to adapt their business model to meet the needs of the future. I know that’s a tough challenge for them. That’s where legislation is going to help them.

Another challenge is going to be education. As we go into the a low-carbon future, we need to launch that whole education process again so people understand why it is happening and what the impacts are.

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