Rifino Valentine was working on Wall Street when he had an epiphany. Like many epiphanies, it involved drinking — in his case, a dirty martini.
"At the time, it became very apparent that all industries were just getting consolidated globally into the bigger players, who just buy up the smaller companies," Valentine says of his view from Wall Street in the early 2000s. "And they're not doing this for the fun of it. They're doing it so they can save money, and they go through the manufacturing process and just cut in every single place that they can possibly cut."
He adds, "I realized liquor manufacturers were one of the biggest perpetrators of cutting corners."
For example, for centuries vodka was distilled in pots, but as distillers grew, they started mass-manufacturing in industrial stills. "It's super fast and super cheap — the only problem is it doesn't taste as good," Valentine says. "So they figured out that the solution to that is you add chemicals to it, you put additives in there."
He adds, "Where does this all end? We're just squeezing every cent out of this at the cost of the quality of the product?"
Then an amatuer brewer, Valentine returned to his home state of Michigan and in 2007 founded Valentine Distilling Co., originally producing vodka at Michigan State University through its Artisan Distilling program before opening a Ferndale distillery and tasting room in 2010.
Moving home, he says, was a no-brainer for his business, at least from a morality standpoint.
"When you're more tied to your community, you tend to do things that are more responsible for your community," he says.
That's why in 2019, Valentine launched a $500,000, 10-year commitment to make his business more ecologically friendly. He started small, installing LED lights throughout his facility. He later installed a rooftop unit that captures about 90% of the water used in the distilling process, and added another rooftop unit that draws air from outside when the temperature is below 40 degrees, to be used in the distillation chilling process — no electric cooling required.
Installing some of the equipment, like the water system, cost a lot upfront. "It doesn't save me any money," Valentine admits. "It might pay off after 40 years."
Valentine also began spending more money when he recently signed up for DTE Energy's MIGreenPower program. Launched in 2017, the program is offered to DTE Electric customers, who can choose to pay a little extra on their monthly bill to have their electricity usage attributed to energy generated from DTE's renewable energy projects.
"That's the easiest thing we've done so far," Valentine says. "You pay a little bit extra, but it comes from wind farms and solar panels."
Under Michigan state law, every utility company is already required to generate at least 15% of its energy from renewable resources, like wind and solar, in 2021. The program, says Brian Calka, director of DTE Energy's renewable-energy solutions team, is for people who want to go above and beyond that — like people who would otherwise install their own solar panels on their home, but can't, for instance. Funds raised by the MIGreenPower program support financing additional DTE renewable-energy projects beyond those built to comply with the state law.
Of course, paying extra money for utilities isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Michiganders had the nation's 14th most expensive electric and gas rates in 2017, and many are critical of privately owned utility companies, contending that their obligations to shareholders makes them inefficient. Plus, a rate hike is already on the horizon — last year, DTE sought a $188.3 million rate increase to go toward investing in its infrastructure, which would equate to a 4.7% increase for its customers, or an average extra $7.14 on each monthly bill. (DTE originally wanted $351 million, or a 9% increase for customers, to invest in its infrastructure. In light of the pandemic, the company agreed to pause any rate hike until 2022.)
But the company thinks there are enough people out there who are like Valentine — who are willing to pay a premium for a greater good. "A lot of people have a passion for addressing climate change and making an impact in the world, who want to go above and beyond that 15%," Calka says.
The program is available to all of DTE Eletcric's 2 million-plus customers, from homeowners to small businesses to large corporations. (Valentine says he signed up for the program at his home, as well.) Customers can sign up at MIgreenpower.com, and simply select how much of their electricity usage they want to be attributed to renewable energy in 5% increments, all the way up to 100%. Customers can change their commitment once every billing cycle.
"It's really a flexible program that matches people's budgetary constraints," Calka says. "People can opt out or modify participation level each billing cycle."
The program draws its renewable energy from across the state, including multiple wind farms and solar parks, including one on Detroit's west side at O'Shea Park. Calka says DTE Energy has also requested approval for three additional large solar projects that could come online in late 2022 or early 2023.
According to Calka, the program now has more than 25,000 residential homeowners enrolled, about 250 small businesses like Valentine Distilling Co., and about 20 large corporations, including Ford Motor Co,. General Motors, the University of Michigan, and the Detroit Zoo. Last year, Calka says the combined renewable energy matched by the program equated to taking approximately 7,000 passenger cars off the road for an entire year. DTE says Valentine, who is paying to attribute 50 percent of the usage at his Ferndale cocktail lounge, will offset 9.3 tons of CO2 — the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from driving nearly 21,000 miles.
Valentine says that while it might not make perfect business sense, he hopes that the government can help push companies to take renewable energy programs further. In the meantime, he hopes he can at least set an example for others.
"Eventually, we hope that this will lead to other companies doing the same thing, or more importantly, we hope that this will lead to the consumer demanding this of other companies," he says. "For now, it's just, let's do it and hopefully we get other people to do it, too."