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Opinion | Siting law will help Michigan towns reap economic benefits of wind, solar

The house district I now serve as a first-time state representative is fascinating for its diverse political views. But one passion we all share is a concern for the environment and a desire to provide future generations with cleaner air, water and land, particularly as the majority of this district is made up of farms, rivers, parks and lakes.

Wind and solar will do that for our state while also providing a steady supply of low-cost energy. In December, I wrote an op-ed to share how clean energy laws signed by the governor would amplify these benefits in Michigan. But in the months since, one law in particular has been the subject of much attention and criticism: a bill reforming how wind and solar projects are sited in the state. The debate has pitted advocates who argue it has grown too hard to build critical clean energy in our state against defenders of the absolute right of local governments to block the development of these resources in their communities. But I want to speak to a question I believe lies more at the heart of the matter: “Why here?”

State Rep. Jennifer Conlin, D-Ann Arbor, headshot
State Rep. Jennifer Conlin, D-Ann Arbor, represents Michigan’s 48th House district

Many rural Michiganders may concede that wind and solar energy bring benefits to the state but question why their town should be home to these resources. My answer is that not only are rural communities the best place to harvest wind and solar energy, with fewer obstructions to block wind and sunlight, but also that these technologies can be major windfalls for these communities.  

Michigan’s small towns face unprecedented challenges. Small family farms, once the economic and spiritual anchors of their communities, are succumbing to economic hardship and a system that favors corporate consolidation. In their absence, businesses fail and downtowns falter; younger generations follow jobs to cities and communities struggle to pay for services and upkeep.   

Clean energy can be a lifeline to communities caught in this trap. Wind and solar developers offer a steady source of supplemental income to Michiganders otherwise facing the bankruptcy of farms their families have held for generations. Solar panels and wind turbines may stick out in the rural landscape, but dual use practices allow farmers to continue tilling their fields in between, rather than selling to developers seeking to pave those fields over to offer up another subdivision to urban sprawl — by far the largest cause of prime farmland loss across the country. Meanwhile, communities receive millions of dollars in taxes and community benefits, allowing them to reinvest in schools, infrastructure and vital services.  

There is always room for healthy caution and community oversight when new technologies come to town. But wind and solar technologies are well understood and definitively safe. Unfortunately, a miasma of fear and misinformation has come to surround these technologies. In response, perhaps feeling that they alone keep the best interests of their communities in mind, many local governments have responded to the opportunity, or merely the potential of hosting wind or solar projects in their towns by shutting the door entirely on these technologies and the hope for growth and renewal they bring. 

The siting law is intended to give communities the reassurance and the tools necessary to face the challenge of integrating these new opportunities and to significantly boost the benefits wind and solar projects bring to communities across the state. With the creation of new community benefits agreements, thousands of dollars of revenue will be added to the economic benefits that already flow from these projects to their host communities. The law puts forward principles for the Michigan Public Service Commission to step in and apply its energy and regulatory expertise to oversee the process of zoning and permitting clean energy projects, laying out standards to protect transparency and community input, and commonsense zoning rules for solar, wind and storage facilities.  

Local governments that still wish to deal in good faith with clean energy developers and set reasonable restrictions on clean energy development are given significant leeway to do so. But others may choose to defer to the Michigan Public Service Commission’s expertise. And at the same time, the law makes clear that it is no longer an option for governments to abdicate their responsibility to respect their neighbors who wish to enter into profitable agreements with clean energy developers for the use of their own land.  

The siting bills do not go into effect until Nov. 29, which allows time for local governments to come into compliance with the new regulatory process. But it also gives us time to continue to amplify the many public benefits that will come from these public acts and how they will not unreasonably diminish farmland or local control.  

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