After local pushback, Michigan Dems seek state oversight of green energy
- Local battles over wind and solar projects have slowed the transition to green energy
- Michigan Democratic leaders want the state Public Service Commision to take control
- State-level decision-making on energy projects would be similar to a system used in Wisconsin
State Democratic leaders hope to muzzle the battles at local township boards that have often throttled Michigan’s green energy efforts by moving control of the siting of energy projects to the state’s Public Service Commission.
House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, told Bridge Michigan Monday he plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to move control of utility-scale wind and solar projects to the PSC.
Currently, projects must be approved by individual township boards. Since the expansive projects often involve multiple townships, renewable energy companies must wrestle for approval from multiple boards, all of which can make decisions based on different standards and, as Bridge Michigan has reported, have at times faced enormous pressure from unhappy residents.
Aiyash said the move would standardize and speed up decisions on projects that the state hopes will help the state reach a goal of a carbon-free electricity standard by 2035.
The administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been involved in discussions of the proposed legislation, Aiyash said. It is expected Whitmer will push for the measure in a speech Wednesday outlining her green energy plan. And a background memo sent to journalists about the speech links to a Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council report that promotes the streamlining of the energy project approval process.
That report states that to reach “a 100% carbon-free electricity standard by 2035 … will also likely require the reform of state laws to make it easier to site renewable energy projects.”
Renewable energy provided 12 percent of Michigan’s electricity generation in 2022, with wind energy accounting for about two-thirds of that power. While the percentage of power coming from renewables is growing, it’s not increasing nearly fast enough to meet goals set by state and federal government and utility providers.
Consumers Energy and DTE both have set goals of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Biden administration set a national goal of 100-percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer introduced a plan to generate 60 percent of the state's electricity from renewable resources and phase out coal-fired power plants by 2030 — seven years from now — and 100 percent by 2035.
Utility-scale wind and solar proposals have met fierce resistance in some Michigan communities. Solar projects can take up thousands of acres, often on top of farmland, and wind turbines can be seen for miles — some taller than the main towers of the Mackinac Bridge.
Because of the amount of space those projects take, they are almost inevitably placed in rural areas of the state. Residents in those areas, the majority of whom are politically conservative, are not always happy to bear the brunt of the green revolution.
Last November, voters in central Michigan’s Montcalm County smacked down green energy initiatives in a number of votes, defeating five wind and solar referendums that would have set standards for renewable energy projects, and recalling seven officials in various townships who were considered pro-wind.
Those votes were noted in Lansing, where newly empowered Democratic leaders and environmental groups were pushing for more wind and solar energy.
“What happened in Montcalm is part of a larger chorus of (grassroots opposition) to these projects,” said Ed Rivet, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy, told Bridge after the November vote. “As that message replicates across the state, it’s going to have implications at a higher level.”
One of those implications is the effort to take decision-making on renewable energy projects away from township officials and local voters.
Judy Allen, director of government relations for the Michigan Townships Association, said decisions that impact local communities should be left to those communities.
“We are not against renewables, we know there’s a need,” Allen said. “Many of our members have multiple (renewable energy) facilities.
But she argued that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to such large projects doesn’t acknowledge differences among communities. If state agencies alone make these decisions, “you’d have no input on the local level in the process, on projects that can have a huge negative impact on a community,” Allen said.
Laura Sherman, president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, countered that energy projects that benefit the entire state should “be considered in a consistent manner, with standards for what all companies must meet, and looked at by a body with the expertise to do that.”
Sherman said the placement of transmission lines and pipelines are already decided by the PSC, because “they are in the state interest.”
Under the current system, wind and solar projects are often “really contentious fights, and we have local officials who sometimes don’t want to make these decisions who are not experts at energy generation.”
The model for renewable energy project siting control that Michigan is considering is similar to one now in place in Wisconsin, Sherman said. There, projects generating at least 100 megawatts of power are authorized by the Wisconsin PSC.
Allen of the township association suggested a compromise, in which initial decisions are made at the local level, with appeals made to the PSC. That would retain a level of local control, while allowing the state to step in.
“I’ve heard from (township official) members that this is one of the most contentious issues they’ve faced,” Allen said. “We’d be open to having a discussion of there being an appeal to go to the state.”
State Rep. Aiyash said the details of the bill are still being developed.
“Without a process that is uniform and is streamlined to allow us to invest in our future, we can’t meet our clean energy standards,” Aiyash said.
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