You might know him as the CEO of Crystal Mountain, but statewide, renewable energy advocates know Jim MacInnes as one of the most effective voices of a smart energy future.

Jim MacInnes is standing on a sidewalk at Crystal Mountain, the Benzie County ski and golf resort where he serves as chief executive officer. He’s talking nearly at a yell to be heard above the loud and constant thrum of heavy construction equipment erecting a 31,000-square-foot hotel across the street. The iron girder frame is still exposed, and a crane delicately lowers cement floor panels into place. A dozen men in hardhats prowl the site. As they work on this gray October day, fall color highlights the ski slopes and forest nearby.

Like any good resort CEO, MacInnes has his talking points down and is playing them out. “It will hold 25 hotel-style units. We sold half of them in 1/8 shares. In the lower level we will have a specialty grocery store with 3,500 square feet. Then we’ll add a coffee and wine bar here …” he says, pointing off to a corner. He describes the coming rooftop deck and bar, the glass staircase intended to get people to walk the four flights of stairs to the roof because it’s good for their health. He references a piece of financing from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the long-term jobs the project will create.

But then MacInnes turns the conversation to the low-energy aspects of the building, and there’s a subtle but unmistakable shift in his tone. He’s ever so slightly more animated. His intellect ever so slightly more engaged. He speaks ever so slightly faster. MacInnes is a self-admitted energy nerd, and talk of the hotel’s low-energy features has just poured fuel on the flame of his energy crush.

The building that rises as he speaks will be heated and cooled in a way that uses mostly renewable energy. “It’s a geothermal system that uses 24 wells, each 460 feet deep,” MacInnes explains. The closed-loop system will extract heat from the groundwater in winter to warm the hotel and will use that same groundwater to absorb the warmth from summer’s hot air for cooling. The only energy the system requires is for powering the pumps, which is minor compared to, say, burning fuel oil for heat. Other energy savings will come from low-energy LED lights, timers on lights, motion-activated switches. “It will be more expensive to build this, but it will pay off in the long run with lower energy costs, and it will really inoculate us against future fuel increases,” MacInnes says. Just as important, or maybe even more so, shrinking Crystal’s carbon footprint does a small piece to combat human-induced climate change. “Global warming is bad for our ski business,” he says, tossing out one of his favorite lines.

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To most people, Jim MacInnes is the respected CEO of a top Midwestern resort, but unknown to many, he has quietly become one of Michigan’s most important voices in encouraging state policymakers and energy leaders to move to a renewable energy future. His effectiveness is built upon a few key ingredients. One, he is a former electrical power engineer and has professional experience in big power generation. Two, his science-oriented mind sees renewable energy as the wise way to put the brakes on global warming and reduce dependence on Middle East oil. Three, his company is putting real money on the line to make clean energy happen at Crystal Mountain.

Larry Ward heads the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, a nonprofit group composed of conservatives who promote renewable energy to other conservatives. He concedes his team doesn’t bring up global warming because, though human-caused global warming is a well-documented fact, the phenomenon does not motivate his audience. But the forum still has plenty of factual points to persuade with. “Our approach is focused on energy independence, national security, a self-sustaining energy economy, jobs created by renewable energy projects—all things that ring true to the conservative ear,” Ward says. He invited MacInnes to join his board because of the credibility he would bring when discussing the topic with lawmakers. “Jim understands energy better than anybody I’ve ever met—he’s the great explainer,” Ward says. “I’ve sat shoulder to shoulder with him testifying before the senate, and the credibility he brings, with that knowledge and as an owner of Crystal Mountain—he uses a lot of energy—that really perks up the legislators’ ears.” As for MacInnes’s politics? “He’s more focused on the science. He’s just not political,” Ward says. “He’s just not oriented that way.”

MacInnes exhibited that science focus early on—very early on—when, as an 8-year-old he built a telegraph machine for a Cub Scout merit badge. “A friend of mine built one too, and we strung wires across four houses and two streets so we could communicate with each other,” he says, of his boyhood in Orange County, California. “That got me interested in electricity and magnetism.” By 13 years old, he had secured a ham radio license.

“I learned Morse code, which was fun,” he says plainly. He pauses, apparently indulging in the memory.

His mom bought him a 33-rpm record that played Morse code, so he could practice his understanding and pass the test. When he was in high school his parents let him add radio towers to the house, a 60-footer, two 30-footers. “The neighbors hated it,” he says. But for MacInnes, the ham radio opened up the world and let him communicate with people in places like Japan and New Zealand and Brazil in days long before the Internet made that commonplace. Mostly he’d get on the radio to talk about radio. “Electromagnetic wave propagation is amazing stuff,” he says. With his arms he makes wave motions in the air to illustrate how the waves move. “And we’d talk antennas, like how far did you space your reflectors and how much gain did you get, things like that.” That experience, those conversations, affirmed the pocket-protector part of his personality, his budding belief that technical knowledge and a clear-eyed understanding of complexity offered the best way to reach a good solution.

After high school, MacInnes took engineering classes at a community college, but wasn’t focused and dropped out to work for the telephone company, and then he joined the Navy. He put the Morse code training to use as a radio operator on a munitions ship plying the waters of the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. After the service, he finished up his electrical engineering degree and sought employment in the electric power industry and eventually landed a job with EBASCO Services, a global leader in power plant development.

Then in his early 30’s he was on a downhill ski trip in Utah and met his wife-to-be, Chris Petritz, daughter of Crystal Mountain founder George Petritz. The two were both living in Southern California and started dating. Two years later they married, and in 1985 they moved to Michigan and embraced the vagaries of running what was then a down-at-the-heels Michigan ski resort.

Chris vividly recalls pulling up to the resort on the first day she and Jim arrived.

“We drove in together and we sat in the car and looked at this place and we thought, What have we done? It was about mid-October, gray and cold … it was a rude awakening,” she says. Chris took on sales—for several years she had sold Yamaha gear for skiing, tennis and biking. Jim took operations and finance—he’d worked with banks in the power industry. But when Chris succeeded in convincing her first potential conference customer to tour the resort, she was rattled again, because Crystal still hadn’t had any upgrades. “I said to my dad, ‘What will we do?’ and he said, ‘With luck, we will have snow, because this place looks a lot better in snow.’ And I thought, Oh my gosh, snow will not hide all of this!”

The couple—he 35 at the time, she 37—focused on the future. They hired a land use company to create a site plan—mapping out construction projects for years to come, and serving double-duty as a kind of strategic plan. They kept their eye on the finances—the resort has been refinanced seven times since. Piece by piece, they built Crystal into the well-respected resort it has become. From 18 ski trails to 58; from 700 gallons per minute of snowmaking to 6,000 gallons per minute; from seven snow guns to 135; from 100 rooms to 245 (and now adding 25); 500 acres added, two neighborhoods added … and more. And clean energy practices have been a quiet force behind the scenes. Crystal was the first Michigan ski resort to purchase wind energy offsets to cover the energy use of a new high-speed chairlift in the late 1990s. When Crystal Mountain added a spa, it was designed to achieve certification in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Crystal was among the first places in Northern Michigan to install public charging stations for electric cars. You can see MacInnes’s Tesla charging there daily. And of course the new hotel is the latest shining example of clean energy at work.

Jim MacInnes

Through it all, Jim MacInnes never lost his fascination for all things energy in the broader sense. Today, for example, he chairs Michigan’s board that represents residential consumers in electrical utility rate challenges. And he has kept his willingness to be involved in the wise development and use of energy resources. Hans Voss, executive director of Groundwork Center (formerly Michigan Land Use Institute), remembers meeting MacInnes back in 1995, when Voss was just 27 and heading a statewide initiative to challenge Antrim oil and gas energy development. “He had a willingness to share knowledge, engage, open doors. He didn’t have a big ego as a corporate leader. He was interested in talking about substance, the merit of our work and discussing facts.”

And over the years, Voss has seen MacInnes’s understanding of energy in action. “The case he makes for the economic benefit of clean energy is impeccable. He has taken the time to study and become an expert of science and policy. And he demonstrates clean energy works at Crystal Mountain every day. Plus he’s likable. He’s respectful and listens and looks for common ground. He’s one of the most credible spokespeople for clean energy in Michigan today.”

It’s a sunny morning in mid-October, and Jim MacInnes is looking forward to a great day. He’s in the driver’s seat of his Tesla, rolling through fall color on Northern Michigan’s back roads on the way to tour a special kind of power plant a couple of hours south, in Ludington. His hands are not on the steering wheel. “I use autopilot about 70 percent of the time,” he says. Meanwhile, on the Tesla’s large display screen, he’s pulling up satellite photos of the power plant, called a pump storage facility, that the company he once worked for designed. He’s zooming in on the image, zooming out. He describes how the pump storage plant works. He’s toured it before, but can’t wait to do so again. “It will blow your mind! Everything is so big. Big stuff!” he says.

He arrives and connects with his tour group—lifetime members of an electric engineers society. When the walk begins, MacInnes is at the front of the scrum. He’s raising his hand. He’s asking questions. He’s making observations. He’s feeling the power.

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Photo(s) by Jesse Green