Earth Matters: With 100% clean energy mandate, Michigan Democrats show elections have consequences

by Meteor Blades for Daily Kos

Two years ago, wagering that Michigan would enact a clean energy package like the one Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Tuesday would be a good way to lose your rent money. The state House of Representatives had been in Republican hands for a dozen years, and Democrats hadn’t held a majority in the state Senate since 1984.

But the 2022 election was a stunning disaster for the state GOP. With abortion literally on the ballot, Democrats got control of the legislature and won every statewide office as voters enshrined reproductive rights in the state constitution. And this week, in another prime example of elections have consequences, the state joined 11 others mandating a rapid switch to 100% clean energy. This got done despite relentless hammering from Republican opponents spouting the usual objections to such mandates, including utter nonsense that would get a high schooler kicked off the debate team.

Every state that has set a goal with a deadline for reaching 100% clean energy—that is, cleanly generated electricity—does it somewhat differently in order to navigate local politics. Although Democrats gained control of the Michigan legislature, the sliver-thin margins mean nothing gets anywhere without compromise. Advocates of clean energy may call that compromising “watering down,” but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, the good stuff.

The Clean Energy Future Plan the legislature passed took its cues from the liberal Whitmer’s 58-page “MI Healthy Climate” plan. It mandates that utilities generate at least 15% of their electricity from clean energy sources through 2029, a paltry amount. Afterward, however, the requirement rises to 50% by 2030, 60% by 2035, and 100% by 2040. That’s very ambitious in the 16-year timeframe set out for it to be achieved. According to the Energy Information Administration, renewable sources of energy, mostly wind turbines around Lake Huron, made up about 12% of Michigan’s power mix in 2022.

Climate activists want a still faster pace. Indeed, an earlier version included a 2035 deadline but this was removed. Utility engineers are uncertain the goal can even be achieved in twice the time, citing numerous obstacles, including an inadequate and antiquated grid as well as a shortage of workers trained for green transition jobs. Moreover, certain politicians are no doubt wondering how soon they can get back into office and sabotage the plan they opposed from the outset. Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt issued a statement after the signing saying that the new law creates “far-left, unworkable energy mandates that will further increase energy costs and make Michigan energy less reliable.” It’s clear that implementing the 100% plan has many hurdles, technical and political, to overcome.

As part of the clean energy package, Whitmer also signed a bill to establish a “community and worker economic transition office.” It is tasked with reducing the economic burden that the transition to clean energy places on workers who are directly or indirectly linked through their jobs to production of fossil fuel energy or internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. The office’s deadline for presenting a report to the governor and legislature on how to accomplish this task is the end of 2025, two years from now.

Another bill in the package requires utilities to provide energy waste reduction programs with assistance directed specifically to low-income customers. It also mandates that they invest in hiring a diverse workforce if they serve more than 50,000 customers. (Shouldn’t a utility hire a diverse workforce period, full stop? But I digress.)

Other bills in the legislation include: more opportunities and funding for consumer, environmental, and other public interest groups to participate in Michigan Public Service Commission policy considerations; a reform of the siting and approval process for utility-scale renewable projects; allowing farmers to lease their land for solar utility projects while maintaining farmland preservation standards. Other features of the bills include:

  • An energy storage standard of 2.5 gigawatts by 2030
  • Raising existing caps on distributed energy sources such as rooftop solar
  • Increasing electric utility energy efficiency savings requirements and making clear that efficiency programs aren’t to be implemented in a way that discourages electrification of buildings

We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Advocates shouldn’t refuse to accept half a loaf when the alternative isn’t even crumbs. Like its predecessors elsewhere, the Michigan plan includes much for other states to imitate. The backers did good work here, and they didn’t delay once they knew they had the votes. Overall, it is a bold, strong package. However, it isn’t flawless. As James Gignac, Midwest Senior Policy Manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes with some constructive criticism:

But the package also is significant for what is not in it. Specifically, it weakened or completely eliminated environmental justice communities’ key priorities regarding affordability, reliability, and equity. Going forward, Michigan policymakers must incorporate these policies, which will mean standing up to utilities and other corporate interests. […]

An equitable clean energy transition is not just about the technologies used to generate electricity. It must include changes that address fundamental injustices under our current system.

Communities should be able to develop locally owned solar and utilities should be mandated to provide bill credits to customers that subscribe to such community solar facilities. The legislature should advance policies such as those contained in HB 4464 and SB 152/153 to require that utilities create community solar programs, expedite MPSC review and approval of those programs to leverage federal funding, and allow greater numbers of subscribing customers to benefit from community solar projects.  […]

Unfortunately, utilities’ undue influence in the negotiating process prevented the passage of stronger and more equitable legislation by eliminating crucial provisions addressing the concerns of environmental and energy justice advocates.

In other words, our job is not done. Disadvantaged communities’ priorities must be fully addressed. We must not allow utilities and other corporate interests to continue to block critical reforms addressing affordability, reliability, and environmental justice. The Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to work with our partners, allies, Gov. Whitmer, and Michigan legislators to secure an equitable clean energy future for all Michiganders.

There are other issues, too. What constitutes “clean” is a matter of definition. The legislation allows for natural gas to be considered clean if 90% of its carbon dioxide emissions can be captured. This measure is fraught with potential trouble. For one thing, the leakage into the atmosphere of natural (mostly methane) gas from fracking, wellhead, and pipelines is not well accounted for. In fact, the self-reporting that the industry has provided for methane emissions has been notoriously understated, so much so as to be disinformation rather than data. Allowing for natural gas with 90% carbon capture to be called “clean” for 2023 is a stretch; but for 2040 it’s BS. 

Officials in 38 other states have so far chosen not to set clean energy mandates for their utilities or taken other steps like those included in Michigan’s Clean Energy Future Plan. Most of them are, of course, run by Republicans. Though not all Republicans are aghast at the very thought of clean energy sources replacing fossil fuels, the party’s least rational actors are in charge. It’s wonderful that Michigan has flipped and awakened to reality, policywise. But expect it to be a long time between the 12th state and the 50th to enact a clean energy mandate. Chalk it up to a combination of ignorance, malevolence, and avarice, although each participant may not check all boxes.

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