On the Ballot (And in the Constitution?): Michigan’s Energy Future

By: - November 5, 2012 12:00 am

Renewable energy advocates will be looking to Michigan on Tuesday (November 6), hoping its voters validate a bold experiment in growing the state’s renewable energy production: If you’re first stymied at the statehouse, just put it on the ballot — and in the constitution.

Michiganders will weigh that question as they vote on Proposal 3, which would amend the document to require utilities by 2025 to generate 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources: wind, solar, hydropower, biomass or any other fuels that “naturally replenish over a human rather than geological time frame.”

It comes at a time while conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Coucil, are pressing state legislatures to roll back requirements to increase renewable energy standards.

And in Michigan, the conservative legislature “isn’t going to consider expanding the standards anytime soon,” says Hugh McDiarmid, of the Michigan Environmental Council.

The proposal has sparked an expensive political brawl pitting environmentalists, manufacturers, health advocates and faith groups against utilities and chambers of commerce, which are backed by Michigan’s Republican governor. Labor unions are split.

Through October, the Care for Michigan Coalition had spent more than $21 million to oppose the measure, according to state disclosure records. That was about twice what was spent by supporters, organized in a group called Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs.

Supporters say a yes vote would shift the state to a cleaner, more sustainable energy mix that would cut utility bills in the long run, particularly as wind and solar costs continue to fall. Additionally, they argue, the new standard would boost in-state manufacturing, mostly in the emerging wind sector.

“It’s a natural fit for the Michigan economy,” says Douglas Jester, of 5 Lakes Energy, an environmental consulting firm.

A Michigan State University report commissioned by environmentalists estimated the new standard would attract about $10.3 billion in investments by 2025, while creating 74,000 “job years,” a measure of a full-time job sustained for one year.

But opponents say the proposal would prove costly. It would raise electricity rates, the group argues, by shifting from fuels such as coal and natural gas, which — for now — are cheaper. All told, expanding renewable energy production would cost about $12 billion dollars, they say, citing a utility-backed report, while causing a mess for regulators.

“Proposal Three would be bad for Michigan consumers, Michigan families, and Michigan businesses,” Governor Rick Snyder said in a statement. “It would cost billions to implement, raise electric bills and make Michigan businesses less competitive.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, say there’s little to fear, pointing to language in the proposal that would add exceptions to any utility that couldn’t meet the standard without keeping rate increases below 1 percent.

Jester says there’s nothing radical about Michigan’s policy; it’s just an extension of its current one, which requires 10 percent renewable energy production by 2015. Michigan utilities produced just 3.7 percent renewable energy in 2010, far less than most of its neighbors. But most utilities are on pace to meet the standard at a lower cost than was expected, according to a report by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Of the 29 states that have passed renewable energy requirements, Michigan’s current standard is among the lowest. Most renewable goals hover between 15 and 25 percent over the coming years, while a few states have mandated renewable energy levels 30 percent or higher. California is aiming for 33 percent in the next eight years, while Hawaii’s goal is 40 percent production by 2030.

Energy experts say state portfolios have played a major role in growing the renewable energy sector. And as federal support dries up, those policies will prove even more instrumental in keeping the industries afloat.

If its proposal passes, Michigan would be the lone state to put energy policy in its constitution. And that’s caused even some backers of renewable energy expansion to hesitate.

“Almost everything about this plan is admirable except the idea of locking it into the state Constitution,” the Detroit Free Press editorialized last week, opposing the measure. “The constitutional route makes it far more difficult to adjust the goal or change the definition of renewable energy, should events warrant.”

That sentiment might just win out. Though the race appeared close over the past months, a Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll released last week found that 55 percent respondents opposed Proposal 3, while just 35 percent supported it.

Mark Fisk, a spokesperson for the Proposal 3 campaign, however, remains convinced the measure will still pass, telling the Free Press the poll numbers were “haywire.”

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