Proposed state oversight of solar, wind pits energy needs v. rural rights
- Democratic lawmakers want to shift permitting power for large renewable energy projects from local government to the state
- They say it’s needed to stop local battles from hindering Michigan’s wind and solar energy growth
- Local government advocates argue the bills would strip away communities’ right to control their own land use
A day after introducing bills to speed up wind and solar permitting by shifting control to the state, Michigan lawmakers debated whether the change would be a gift to struggling farmers and utility customers — or a bane on rural communities.
During a hearing Wednesday before the House Energy, Communications and Technology Committee, the legislation’s Democratic sponsors said local resistance to renewable energy projects is blocking Michigan’s energy transition and depriving farmers of opportunities to earn money by leasing land for power.
“The reality is this, we will not be able to sustain our state, with our energy supply,” said Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck and a key sponsor of the bill package. “We will not be able to have a reliable energy source if we are not going to look at large-scale investments in solar and wind.”
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The permitting bills are part of a broader push by Democratic lawmakers to move Michigan more quickly off of fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
But sponsors heard an earful from rural Republican lawmakers, who contend their constituents would bear the brunt of legislation pushed mainly by urban and suburban lawmakers.
“None of these projects will probably go in any of … the bill sponsors’ districts,” said Rep. Pat Outman, R-Six Lakes. “They will go to the rural communities. We will be stuck with the infrastructure.”
At issue was House Bills 5120-5123, which would authorize the Michigan Public Service Commission to approve large wind, solar and energy storage projects in the state.
Those projects, which tend to be placed on farmland because of the need for large open spaces, currently need the blessing of local governments. They frequently encounter resistance from nearby residents who don’t want their pastoral views replaced with wind or solar arrays.
Fights over the issue can often turn vitriolic, pitting neighbors against neighbors and leading to recall votes. Proponents of the bills say they would take the heat off local officials, while eliminating roadblocks to renewable energy development as Michigan utilities strive to decarbonize their power supply.
The conflicts bubbling up in rural communities were apparent in the hearing room, as one resident testified that renewable energy is “being shoved down our throats,” while a farm owner urged passage of the bills in hopes that they’ll enable her to lease her land for solar. Currently, she’s barred from leasing her land due to a local ordinance.
The Michigan Farm Bureau and groups representing local governments oppose the bills, arguing they would leave communities unable to craft zoning policies that cater to the needs of their specific community.
Judy Allen, director of government relations for the Michigan Townships Association, said the package “totally disregards any locally-adopted zoning ordinances as well as it eliminates the voices of the residents.”
Allen raised fears that state-approved projects would interfere with communities’ existing plans for growth and development. And she criticized the bills for omitting specifics about how much land would be allowed for renewable energy in any given municipality. Instead of defaulting to state control, she said, locals should have the first chance to review an application, with developers able to pursue a separate process if that fails.
The package has support from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), environmental and labor groups. MPSC Chair Dan Scripps called it “a necessary shift in how we think about energy infrastructure.”
Scripps noted that other Great Lakes states have similar regulations, and that Michigan already regulates natural gas, petroleum and electric transmission lines at the state level in recognition that individual communities shouldn’t have veto power over matters critical to the state’s energy needs.
“If every individual local unit of government can block those projects, we end up without the projects that we need for Michigan,” Scripps said.
Responding to criticism that the legislation would strip away local rights, proponents noted that the legislation includes provisions to protect local interests, from requiring developers to provide benefits stipulated by the surrounding community to insisting that they pay prevailing wages to construction workers.
Speaking to the press before the hearing, Rep. Ranjeev Puri, D-Canton Township, highlighted the jobs potential of building out wind and solar arrays. He called the bill package potentially “life-changing” for farmers who could earn money by leasing their land for renewable energy.
Farm loss is a nationwide problem as development and consolidation eat away at ag land and replace family farms with corporate operations. There were 9.2 million acres of farmland in Michigan last year, down 500,000 acres from 2021.
With a slim Democratic majority in both chambers and widespread Republican opposition to energy reforms, Democrats pushing to change Michigan’s energy laws will likely need near-unanimous support from within their party.
That’s not a given. While Democrats largely expressed support for the renewable permitting bills, Rep. Jenn Hill, D-Marquette, expressed concern about “how broadly this is written.” She wanted more specifics on the public benefits energy developments would need to provide to local communities, she said.
The committee didn’t vote on the bills Wednesday. Bill sponsors have said they aim to push the package through to passage before the Legislature breaks for the year, but are open to amendments.
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