There is not much that Art Toy finds daunting.
He is a veteran of Desert Storm (1991) and had a 13-year career with the Michigan Army National Guard, his last assignment as an artillery officer. He became a qualified scuba diver as an undergraduate oceanography major at UCLA. He ran as a Democrat three times for Michigan state representative and once for state senator in a Republican district but lost.
He bought a house built in 1899 for $5,000 and had it hauled 33 miles, from M-43 and Ninth Street to Lawrence.
And, when in 2008 after a 24-year career as a chemist, Toy learned his job at Pfizer was being eliminated, he decided to jump into the emerging world of alternative energy and start his own company. Now he climbs tall towers to install wind turbines that generate electricity and scrambles across rooftops to set up solar energy arrays.
Toy’s company, Four Elements Energy, which he runs from his home in Lawrence, provides consultations on renewable energy from wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower and installs the related technology. But renewable energy is not just a business for Toy; it’s a way of life.
Along the driveway to Toy’s house, there’s a wind turbine on the right. In front of the house is an array of solar panels. He has created what they call in the business a "net-zero home," where he generates energy and receives credit for it on the grid from Consumers Energy by offsetting the cost of electricity. But more importantly, Toy says, he sleeps with a clear conscience, knowing that renewable energy is making an important contribution to the country’s energy future and to life on Earth.
“We’re way behind in energy innovations but slowly catching up,” says Toy, referring to America’s energy future and Michigan’s in particular. “The drag is that our entire infrastructure revolves around fossil fuels. Slowly, however, integrated renewables — wind and solar — are emerging.
“The cost of solar power over the last eight years has dropped 80 percent, and it will continue to drop. It used to be that payback for a commercial installation was 20 to 25 years. Now it is only five to seven years with tax credits and depreciation.”
Four Elements Energy has completed projects with the Army National Guard in Battle Creek, the Gun Lake Tribe, Kalsec Inc. and the Berrien County Unitarian Universalists Church and has assisted with Pfizer Inc.’s climate change, conservation and energy efficiency efforts. Four Elements Energy has also installed solar arrays and small wind energy systems for several Michigan homes.
But despite the declining cost of renewable energy and its benefits, Toy says people often shun alternative energy sources for aesthetic reasons. Homeowners’ associations, for example, are generally prone to restricting the use of wind turbines, solar panels and even clotheslines, because they are deemed unsightly, says Toy.
“Zoning is a difficult problem to overcome,” he says. “To get good wind power, the tower must be at least 100 feet high, but some communities restrict these towers in height and placement; namely, they must be out of sight and far away from the road. Fortunately, for installing solar panels it’s a little easier to get compliance.”
Another obstacle to renewables is the monopoly of the energy companies, says Toy. Currently, only 10 percent of Michigan’s utilities are open for energy free trade, through which people may buy power from anyone while the rest — 90 percent of the state’s utilities — are a regulated monopoly.
“I never dreamed I’d see these battles,” says Toy, referring to efforts today by a variety of players to make renewable energy more accessible to consumers. Toy says he has stood as a lone public citizen in numerous legislative hearings in an effort to promote renewable energy and was always overshadowed by mega-energy lobbying groups.
“We spend so much time lobbying for this cause in Michigan,” says Toy. “I just want to install renewable energy systems without having to be publicly vocal.”
As it is, some cities in Michigan are already on track to use 100 percent renewable energy for city operations, says Toy. Traverse City is aiming to reach this goal by 2020, while Grand Rapids has become a leader in renewable energy for mid-sized cities and has the goal of powering city operations with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. Holland, which has one of Michigan’s oldest coal-fired power plants, is building a new, state-of-the-art combined-cycle power plant that uses both natural gas and steam power to generate electricity.
In fact, due to old age and tighter environmental regulations, 25 coal units at Michigan power plants are scheduled to shut down by 2020, the Detroit Free Press reported in fall 2015.
Los Angeles, where Toy grew up, has used renewable energy for decades, including rooftop solar water heating and electrical systems. These rooftop systems have evolved into utility-scale solar electric power arrays throughout California and are displacing coal-fired power plants. Toy says Michiganders just don’t see enough evidence of these devices to effect change in their own state.
“Fear of technology is a problem,” he says. “The less exposure to something new, the more uncomfortable people are about it. That’s certainly the case with renewables. Other people take a leap of faith because they believe these technologies can create a greater good.”
Toy admits he still has the political bug in him and notices that renewable energy is wanted by conservatives, liberals and independents but for different reasons.
“My conservative clients are looking for security from a loss of their power supply, while my liberal clients are looking for energy sustainability,” he says. “The independents are looking to save money.”
What this common interest implies is that energy problems may be an issue that people from all political persuasions come together to solve, and Toy reports that political change is starting to happen in Lansing.
“The Tea Party (conservatives) and the Sierra Club (liberals) have formed the Green-Tea Alliance to promote renewables with the utility companies,” says Toy.
“As people become more aware, I hope other businesses will form to serve additional needs.”