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BENTON HARBOR — Local leaders, including St. Joseph Mayor Mike Garey and state Rep. Pauline Wendzel, picked up some bright ideas on solar power at a legislative forum Friday hosted by Michigan’s Great Southwest Sustainable Business Forum.

“There’s no downside” to trying out new methods on a small scale to see what works, Garey said, pointing out that one of the city’s lighthouses has a solar panel.

Communities should take it a step at a time, he said at the event held at the offices of Wightman engineers in Benton Harbor.

“It’s evolution, not revolution,” Garey said.

The keynote speaker was David Konkle, former president of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, which seeks to educate decision makers on environmental issues. The other officials were joined by Peter Ross Dickow, West Michigan regional director for U.S. Sen. Gary Peters.

Fossil fuels are eventually going to run out, and we have to switch to alternatives such as solar, wind and geo-thermal energy, Konkle said.

He showed that the world’s energy needs could be met by a 200-by 200-mile array of solar panels in the deserts of Tunisia. Solar is the only form of energy that does not use and pollute a vast amount of water, he said.

Top U.S. cities for using solar power are Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Honolulu. But Michigan communities are getting into the flow. Lansing has a goal of going to 100 percent renewable energy, and Ann Arbor offers “Power Hours” to educate residents, Kunkle said. The MSU Extension is taking the lead in solar agriculture use.

Michigan State University has installed solar panels on its carports, capable of generating 15,000 megawatts of energy. And Grand Rapids has launched a $5 million solar project called Circuit West, with a parking garage with solar panels.

Community Solar projects allow residents and businesses to buy shares in the power grid, Kunkle said.

Some have even speculated that the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico could become a solar and wind energy corridor, he said.

Fossil fuel interests are getting in the way of progress, he added. “Change is painful for some people, and that’s what is slowing it down.”

Governments can set an example by starting their own projects, making permitting easier and offering tax credits, Kunkle said.

Garey’s eyes seemed to light up at the mention of a parking garage with solar panels, and he wanted to know how many homes it powers.

“Many thousands,” Kunkle said.

Garey pointed out his city’s Sustainability Committee, that brought in an award for energy efficiency renovations at the public works building. St. Joseph also participates in an 18-member Best Practices Committee focused on promoting non-motorized transportation.

St. Joseph has even looked into installing a green roof at city hall, he said.

Wendzel, elected last November to the 79th District, is vice chairwoman of the House Energy Committee. She said solar energy is the “hot topic” in Lansing right now.

She recommended that Michigan keep researching and innovating in these areas. “Keep moving forward and keep an open mind.”

She added that legislators can make it easier for residents and companies to invest in renewable energy sources.

Dickow said Peters’ priorities include job creation, and protecting the climate through such projects as promoting electrical vehicles.

Peters will be participating in a forum on the impact of climate change on taxpayers Monday at Michigan State University, Dickow said.

St. Joseph Commissioner Laura Goos, part of the city’s Sustainability Committee, said she was inspired by the exchange.

“There were a ton of really cool ideas,” Goos said.

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