Center to help communities tackle renewable energy projects


The Graham Sustainability Institute is launching the Center for EmPowering Communities to foster decarbonization solutions that advance community goals and priorities.

The center will help Michigan communities tackle the planning and zoning challenges related to renewable energy projects such as wind and solar installations. In addition, the center will spur collaborative research that integrates social science with technology design, community engagement and policymaking.

The center will be led by Sarah Mills, a noted expert on farmland preservation, rural prosperity, and planning and zoning for renewable energy. The establishment of the center is a natural progression of Mills’ prior energy-focused work at the Graham Institute, which has garnered increasing interest from researchers, practitioners and stakeholders.

“The Center for EmPowering Communities is designed to respond to stakeholder needs and catalyze research and education around renewable energy in a way that is community-centered,” said Mills, who also is an associate professor of practice in U-M’s Urban and Regional Planning Program.

“At the heart of this endeavor is a network of partnerships forged with stakeholders from the public, private and nongovernmental sectors. By collaborating deeply with these diverse entities, we can identify and elevate issues and opportunities at the intersection of land use, decarbonization and economic development. Our goal is to bridge the gap between theory and real-world implementation, shaping policies and strategies that align with local objectives.”

The center will enhance the Graham Institute’s long-standing partnership with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. This partnership includes facilitating the Catalyst Leadership Circle, which supports local governments that are paving a path to greater sustainability across Michigan and includes a fellowship for graduate students to help CLC communities take tangible steps toward their sustainability goals.

In collaboration with EGLE and other key partners, the center will administer the Renewable Energy Academy. This program provides a range of resources to assist communities in the planning and zoning process for renewable energy.

In addition, the center partners with faculty and researchers on a range of other engaged research projects considering how renewable energy infrastructure impacts — and is impacted by — the communities that host it.

This includes a project, led by Michael Craig, assistant professor of environment and sustainability in the School for Environment and Sustainability, to consider the economic impacts of solar power on rural communities in the Great Lakes region, as well as to document and understand how local government zoning rules impact solar deployment.

“Our establishment of the Center for EmPowering Communities heralds a new chapter in decarbonization solutions that not only address the urgent climate challenges but also empower communities to shape their sustainable future,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, Graham Family Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute.

“As the center’s work gains momentum, the potential for scalable solutions and positive impact continues to expand. Through ongoing partnerships and a commitment to excellence, the center is poised to make a lasting difference in our state and region’s journey towards a more sustainable and resilient future.”


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