Energy policy debate is missing the point, advocates say

By CAITLIN McARTHUR
Capital News Service

LANSING — Debate over Michigan’s future energy policy continues with proposals aimed at cheap, reliable energy.

But environmental advocates say legislators are missing the bigger picture.

Climate change has yet to be discussed at any great length, said Mike Berkowitz, the legislative and policy director for the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter.

Some of the proposed policies are “a true climate disaster” in light of 97 percent of climate scientists agreeing that change is happening and people are driving it through the carbon emissions created largely by burning fossil fuels.

Climate change has major implications for public health, Berkowitz said. It impacts water supply, food and the type of diseases we deal with.

“Nobody at the Capitol right now is talking about policies to fix these problems, and I think that’s what we truly need,” Berkowitz said.

Three energy-related policies have been proposed by Republicans. Another is proposed by Democrats. But their focus remains firmly on savings for consumers and how to increase energy production.

New energy policy is a priority, with 2008 mandates requiring utilities to draw 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015 set to expire this year. Utilities are on track to meet the mandate, according to a Michigan Public Service Commission report.

Support for the proposals that have emerged to keep, increase or eliminate the mandate are split on party lines.

Concerns over Michigan’s energy capacity are an added pressure, with federal mandates set to shut down a number of coal-fired electrical plants soon.

Gov. Rick Snyder in March pushed for more renewable energy and to increase the state’s reliance on natural gas.

Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, who chairs the House Energy Committee, introduced an eight-bill package keeping the renewable portfolio standard at 10 percent, eliminating the energy efficiency mandate and redefining renewable energy to include burning tires and other waste.

Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, is set to introduce his own bill that would move the state toward what is called an integrated resource planning approach. It would require energy utilities to report to the Michigan Public Service Commission their expected customer and base loads, energy capacity and reserve margins and how they plan to meet them.

Nofs’ bill would also repeal the renewable portfolio and energy optimization standards – requirements that utilities engage in energy efficiency programs.

But Democrats on April 23 introduced in both the House and Senate a plan to double the renewable portfolio and energy optimization standards.

Sam Gomberg, an energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he supports the Democrats’ proposal to increase mandates as the only environmental policy that makes sense.

“They’ve worked, they’ve been cost effective, they’ve done exactly what they were intended to do and we’ve clearly benefited,” Gomberg said. “I feel that, politics aside, this is the right direction for Michigan to go.”

A 2014 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Charting Michigan’s Renewable Energy Future, showed Michigan could affordably and reliably generate 32.5 percent of its electricity by 2030 on renewables alone.

This would spur investment, cut carbon emissions and reduce the state’s reliance on coal and natural gas, the report said.

Nicholas Occhipinti, policy director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, said the Council would support raising the renewable portfolio mandate, but the legislature also needs to look towards energy efficiency.

Climate change, he said, will play a role in the discussion, but there are a lot of pieces of this conversation that are being overlooked.

“Energy efficiency should be the foundation of our policy, but none of the plans, from the governor, the Senate or the House have preserved the mandate to get us there — to build off of the success we’ve already had,” he said. “We would like to see them reconsider the notion.”

Integrated resource planning to meet energy targets are ineffective without the mandates, Occhipinti said.

In a perfect world, energy efficiency would be a top priority of an integrated resource planning process, he said. But without a mandate, it has not happened nationally.

While the state has made great progress since 2008, it is time for a different approach, Nofs said.

“I support whatever is clean, affordable and reliable,” he said. “I think we are doing all the right things, and pushing the envelope even further.”

Nofs said he agrees the state needs to improve energy efficiency, but argues it can be done without the mandate. His bill introduces an energy standard — yet to be determined — which requires utilities to draw a certain amount of energy from renewables and provides incentives to expand them.

Gomberg worries that if legislators fail to implement strict rules and mandates for the utilities, progress with renewables will stall.

“You could really open it up to manipulation by the utility companies,” he said. “I’m not an anti-utility guy, but I think you have to be honest about their motives. What is in their best interests is not necessarily going to be in the best interests of Michiganders.”

The legislature should define the parameters in which the utilities operate, Gomberg said. He applauded Snyder’s focus on energy efficiency, but said he is wary of the push toward natural gas.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report tracking the state’s move toward natural gas over the past five years and describing its risks.

“Price with natural gas has historically been very volatile,” Gomberg said. “Natural gas is also a fossil fuel; burning it emits a lot of carbon, which impacts on climate change.”

Cost is the factor being argued by both sides of the legislature, but Occhipinti said lawmakers need to remember Michiganders are experiencing more than just monetary cost.

“Nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, mercury — these are emissions, pollutants that ratepayers and citizens bear the cost of that just don’t factor into the price of energy,” he said.

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