The Right Way

Oakland County businesses, residents and government work toward a greener future
Photo courtesy of Valentine Vodka

Book a tasting tour at Valentine Distilling Co. in Ferndale, and as you sip your craft spirits, you’ll notice a tropical palm tree rising from among the copper pots. Soaking up the sun under skylights in the 45-foot-tall ceiling, the tree has become a symbol of the distillery’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

Last year, owner Rifino Valentine pledged to spend more than $500,000 to bring his facility to complete climate sustainability in a decade. The goal is to reduce energy use, recycle or reuse raw materials and generate clean energy.

Just one year into that effort, the company has made great strides.

The initiative started with water-processing equipment that allows Valentine Distilling to recapture up to 98 percent of water it uses in the distilling process, amounting to 2,000 gallons a day. The company anticipates it will save 4.75 million gallons over 10 years.

This spring, the company will reinvest $75,000 to install a “free chill” rooftop unit.

“Any time the ambient temperature is 55 degrees or less, we can completely bypass our glycol chiller. Fortunately up here in Michigan, that’s much of the year,” Valentine says.

The company has installed LED lighting throughout the building. It also returns its grain byproduct, stripped of starches and rich in protein, back to farmers for use as cattle feed and fertilizer.

“We’re trying to go completely sustainable in 10 years, basically because it’s the right thing to do,” Valentine says. “We’re reinvesting in that initiative to hopefully show it can be done, and be an example for all the other craft distilleries across the country.”

Photo courtesy of Valentine Vodka

Oakland County Commissioner Helaine Zack recently attended an event at Valentine Distillery and was impressed with the company’s initiative.

“This is what every other producer should be doing,” she says. “Trying to be conscious about how much energy we use and focusing on a whole sustainable way of building and producing. It’s something I believe in, and I know many other commissioners do as well.”


As Valentine Distilling manifests what one company can do to go clean and green, Oakland County government is investing in ways to protect resources on a larger scale.

The county provides a household hazardous waste collection program that picked up 700,000 pounds from 5,000 residents last year, keeping items such as paint, motor oil, insecticides, batteries, computer monitors and fluorescent tubes out of landfills.

The county oversees the nation’s first and only countywide Main Street Oakland County revitalization and historic preservation program, intended to help local communities and business owners repurpose buildings and focus investment where infrastructure already exists.

Courtesy of the Oakland County Water Resource Commission

In 2018, the most recent year for which data is published, more than $50 million was invested and 107 buildings rehabilitated.

This spring, there will be a ribbon cutting for the newly improved and renamed Clinton River Water Resource Recovery Facility. The wastewater treatment plant will now pre-treat sewage, capturing five times more class A methane that can be sold as fertilizer instead of having it dissipate into the air. The project is expected to save $1.5 million a year while helping the environment.

And according to Jim Nash, Oakland County water resources commissioner, an exciting new green infrastructure ordinance program will encourage 14 communities in the George W. Kuhn Drainage District to deal with stormwater runoff in a more sustainable way.

Funded by a grant from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the project will retool local ordinances to encourage urban rain gardens with long-root flowers, street tree plantings, bioswales and pervious pavement to absorb rainwater. It will keep fertilizer and other waste from being swept into lakes and rivers, and save money by reducing the amount of water municipalities are paying to treat. It’s a huge stride in local efforts to solve one of America’s largest remaining pollution problems.

“For me and my staff and our administration, it’s exciting,” Nash says. “It will contribute toward stormwater management, reduce flooding, filter air pollution and improve quality of life.

“Sustainability is to always be looking in the future for the consequences of your actions now. All the processes we do are more efficient in the long run.”

Powerley, a joint venture with DTE Energy, lets homeowners measure exactly how much energy they’re using in real time, with an eye toward conservation.


As businesses and government strive for sustainability, a startup in Royal Oak is helping residents be more eco-conscious as well. Powerley, a joint venture with DTE Energy, lets homeowners measure exactly how much energy they’re using in real time, with an eye toward conservation.

“It’s a platform that proactively allows customers to monitor their energy use and carbon footprint,” says Powerley CEO Manoj Kumar. “Our home is our biggest investment. This gives us peace of mind and an appreciation of what’s really happening in the home and insight into how we can optimize our home.”

To participate, residents request a piece of hardware called an energy bridge, which is easy to install, along with smart plugs for wall sockets throughout the home. The system monitors how much energy is used by everything from appliances and HVAC to computers and light bulbs. An app lets users check electricity and natural gas usage on the go. It’s free for 60 days, then $1.99 per month.

While many for-profit companies race into the smart home arena with an eye toward selling customers refills when laundry detergent and milk run low, Powerley is delivered exclusively by utilities with data strictly for customer use. The company is at the forefront of new technology, growing to employ more than 50 people with 200,000 users in North America since its 2015 launch.

Manoj Kumar
Powerley CEO Manoj Kumar

“We are leading the way,” Kumar says. “We are able to help people save up to 10 percent of their energy bill by delivering insights and coaching. It’s important to demystify energy and educate end users.”

As homeowners, businesses and municipalities make changes within, the result is cumulative. If a palm tree can be sustained throughout Michigan winters with a little care and attention, Valentine notes, anything can happen.

“The palm tree makes our distillery a better environment to work in; it looks nice and makes you feel like you’re somewhere tropical,” he says. “It’s symbolic. Let’s get back to doing things and making things in the right way.”