20140910-SolarCon-JD

Mike Schmerl is a survivor of the Michigan solar industry’s bad old days. Now, he hopes, some good new days may finally be on the way.

Back in 2008, the veteran electrician was doggedly trying to expand his Traverse City-area company into the solar panel installation business, but it wasn’t working.

“I had a 15-year-old firm, 10 to 15 guys working for me, but I couldn’t find enough solar work to feed even just myself,” he recalled while chatting up the Solar Powering Michigan conference, slated for Sept. 12 at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City. “If it had just been solar, I would have died.”

Happily, before his solar passion proved fatal, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse, and moved to Pennsylvania—where a startup was successfully “going solar.”

“It was a huge difference,” he said of Pennsylvania’s solar policy support compared to Michigan’s. “They had statewide rebates for buying the panels, they had personal property tax exemptions for installing them on your homes. Michigan had—and still has—none of that.

“We went from four guys with cell phones and an attitude to 41 employees in 30 months,” he recalled. “If we had similar opportunities in Michigan, I would have been that guy with the startup. We created new jobs in a new industry.”

Schmerl recently moved back to Traverse City and now consults for, among others, Harvest Energy Solutions, a clean energy installer focused on Midwest farmers. He said the upcoming conference, which he helped plan, is the first of its kind in Michigan and is all about creating new jobs. He’s on a panel about solar workforce development and job opportunities, but the daylong agenda is much broader.

“This is an extension of successful, similarly formatted conferences sponsored by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association,” he said. “They have already had them in Minnesota and Illinois. We are very late to the game here in Michigan; it’s time for us to step up and participate, too.”

Developments in Michigan over the past year suggest that the conference could be arriving right on time.

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