With tensions rising, Michigan Democrats unveil clean energy reforms
- Local fights over wind and solar arrays are slowing the transition to green energy
- A new bill package aims to speed renewable build-outs by giving the state more control
- The bills go hand-in-hand with broader energy reforms that Democrats are negotiating behind-closed-doors
With tensions rising as Michigan Senate Democrats hold closed-door negotiations over their plan to wean Michigan off fossil fuels, their counterparts in the House on Tuesday unveiled the latest piece of the party’s sweeping energy reform package.
House Bills 5120-5123, filed Tuesday, would change the approval process for large wind and solar arrays, shifting authority from local government to the state Public Service Commission.
It’s a move designed to speed up permitting, preventing local resistance from stalling or blocking renewable energy projects across the state.
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While placing more siting authority over location and permitting in the state’s hands, the bills would require developers to sign agreements that benefit the surrounding community. They would also require companies that want to build new projects to negotiate agreements with labor organizations and pay construction workers prevailing wages.
Proponents, including environmentalists and energy advocates, say that without a more streamlined state permitting process, Michigan utilities may be unable to ditch fossil fuels fast enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
“We’re nowhere near where we need to be,” said lead sponsor Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck.
“A significant reason for that is that there's an inconsistent process with siting in our state, which results in confusion for developers and a slowdown for protecting our planet.”
But opponents, including Republican legislators and local government advocates, argue the bills defy Michigan’s tradition of local control over land use.
“I think it's a bad idea to hand control over from local authorities to a panel of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats,” said Pat Outman, R-Six Lakes.
The House Energy, Communications and Technology Committee is expected to hold a hearing Wednesday on the bills.
The changes would apply to solar projects over 50-megawatts (350 acres for a project that generates 7 megawatts-per-acre) and wind projects over 100-megawatts (about 35 turbines).
Under the legislation, the Michigan Public Service Commission would have the power to certify plans for wind, solar and storage facilities. Before seeking state approval, developers would first need to notify local governments of their plans and hold public meetings.
They would then submit a site plan to the MPSC. The commission would have a year to approve or deny their application.
Developers building on greenfields would have to explain why they can’t use alternative locations, such as vacant industrial land. The MPSC could also impose requirements such as planting vegetation to benefit pollinators or making improvements to the surrounding community.
And developers would be required to enter into agreements with local groups, spelling out additional benefits to the surrounding community. That could include things like local hiring quotas, extra environmental protections or funding for local causes.
Projects would be required to bargain with labor, pay prevailing wages to construction workers and adhere to noise limits, height limits and setback requirements.
Solar arrays would need to be 150 feet from the nearby homes, and couldn’t extend more than 25 feet above the ground. For wind arrays, the distance to the nearest off site residence would need to be 2.1-times the highest point on the wind turbine. Outdoor noise impacts to the nearest home would be limited to an hourly average of 55 decibels, about as loud as a home refrigerator.
“We've done everything we can to do the work to include the locals as much as possible,” Aiyash said, “and I'm looking forward to where we land on this legislation.”
Michigan utilities plan to build out thousands of acres of wind and solar developments to replace fossil fuels as they strive to achieve carbon neutrality by midcentury. The need for large tracts of open land means turning to farm fields in conservative communities that tend to be skeptical of renewable energy.
Those projects currently need approval from township boards — often several of them since wind and solar arrays can span multiple jurisdictions.
But boards often face pushback from residents who fear losing tillable land and property value as pastoral views give way to vast solar fields and towering wind turbines. Some also express health concerns.
That kind of opposition can doom projects. In Montcalm County, voters last fall rejected several referendums that would have set standards for wind energy projects in the area and recalled township officials who were seen as wind energy supporters.
The bills would shift power from local communities to the state in a process similar to the one used in neighboring states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The proposal has met opposition from local government leaders including the Michigan Townships Association.
“No one knows their community better than residents and the local officials they elected to represent and serve them,” said Neil Sheridan, the group’s executive director. “This legislation is an authoritarian attempt to force large renewable energy facilities into Michigan’s rural areas — completely disregarding and negating adopted local zoning ordinances, including the ability for voter referendums on the issue.”
The House bills come as Senate Democrats privately workshop separate energy bills that aim to hasten Michigan’s shift away from fossil fuels.
The centerpiece of that effort is Senate Bill 271, which would put state-regulated utilities on a deadline to go “carbon-free.”
An original deadline of 2035 has been pushed back to 2040. But weeks after bill sponsors announced that and other changes to the energy package, new bill language hasn’t been made public.
That’s a source of frustration for environmental groups, who accused utility lobbyists of stalling negotiations and pushing lawmakers to make more concessions.
“This is not moving in a direction that we approve of,” said Mikal Goodman, manager of the Michigan Alliance for Justice In Climate.
The Detroit News reported this week that a nonprofits connected to DTE Energy gave $2 million to Democrat-aligned groups soon after the party took power in Lansing — a move seen by environmentalists as an effort to influence energy policy.
“The best way for leaders in Lansing to show that they aren't beholden to big polluters is to pass the strongest versions of our renewable energy bills, ASAP,” said Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.
Officials with Consumers Energy and DTE Energy say they’re already moving as quickly as possible away from fossil fuels. Requiring them to move too fast, they argue, could lead to premature closure of fossil fuel plants, resulting in higher costs and less-reliable power.
“We're closing coal plants. We are adding 8,000 megawatts of solar. We're looking at battery storage,” said Katie Carey, a spokesperson for Consumers. “To get us there faster is going to likely hinder reliability.”
Responding to environmentalists’ complaints about utility influence over the negotiating process, Carey said Consumers won’t “apologize for engaging in the debate.”
“If something's going to impact our company, impact our industry, we should have a seat at the table,” she said.
Molly Korn, chief of staff for key sponsor Senate Majority Floor Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said more changes are likely before the revised bills are ready for public view.
Beyond deadlines, key points of contention include how utilities would be expected to achieve carbon neutrality. Some environmental groups say they won’t support legislation that allows nuclear energy, carbon capture or lets utilities purchase renewable energy credits while continuing to burn fossil fuels. DTE officials, on the other hand, said the company wants a “technology-neutral” standard.
Democrats, who hold a narrow majority in both chambers, say they aim to pass the carbon-free mandate, siting reforms and other key pieces of their energy package before adjourning for the year. They’re unlikely to get much support from Republicans, who have widely condemned the effort.
“We should be working towards carbon reduction,” Outman said. “But we have to be responsible about it. This plan, I don’t think is.”
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