By CAITLIN McARTHUR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan’s future in clean energy is up for debate, with 2008 mandates set to expire, widely divergent proposals from government leaders, and environmental groups worried the state could turn back toward fossil fuels.
Michigan’s Democrats are proud of the state’s success in shifting to 10 percent renewable energy over the past seven years. They want to increase the renewable goal to 20 percent.
Republican legislators are concerned about Michigan’s energy capacity with federal mandates set to shut down a number of coal-fired electrical plants in the coming years. They want to maintain the 10 percent renewable energy requirement and reduce restrictions on meeting state energy goals.
Gov. Rick Snyder wants both to push for more renewable energy and to increase reliance on natural gas, which environmental advocates say combines a step forward with a step back.
The state is on track to meet its mandated 10 percent renewable energy goal at less than the estimated cost, resulting in lower or eliminated surcharges for Michigan power customers, according to a 2015 Michigan Public Service Commission report. Democrats say this shows the mandates work, but Republicans maintain they are too restrictive.
Republicans are also concerned about reports that raise the possibility of rolling blackouts and energy shortages if legislators fail to find a way to replace the energy produced by closing coal plants. Republicans said leaving the mandates at 10 percent would allow more freedom in pursuing alternative energies, and could help the state to avoid the forecast energy capacity shortage.
“That’s why we need to go back to a regulated utility structure to make sure that we have the capacity that is needed in the state,” said Rep. Aric Nesbitt, a Republican from Lawton and chairman of the House Energy and Technology Committee.
Snyder wants to pursue a heavier reliance on natural gas as a substitute for coal.
However, allowing the state to fall back on fossil fuel powered energies would have long-term consequences, said Mike Berkowitz, the Michigan Sierra Club’s legislative policy specialist.
“We could end up with more air pollution, more water pollution. We’d have more particular matter put into the air which causes cancer, lung disease and asthma, and ultimately we would see an exacerbation in climate change – it’s not sustainable,” Berkowitz said.
Erica Donerson, a senior specialist in media relations for DTE Energy, said independent experts from the Michigan Public Service Commission and a 2014 report from Midcontinent Independent System Operator both confirmed an electrical capacity shortfall. It will be important for the legislature to find a compromise, Donerson said.
The 2008 law was a result of bipartisan cooperation, and representatives from both parties have expressed a desire for the new energy policy to once again be bipartisan.
Rep. Bill LaVoy, a Democrat from Monroe County and vice chairman of the House Energy Policy Committee, said despite the distinct differences in the three proposals, he believed bipartisan agreement will be reached. Democrats have laid out energy priorities but have not introduced related bills, saying they are in a wait-and-see stage.
“I don’t know that any of these proposals — the governor’s, the Democrats’ or the Republicans’ — are necessarily lines in the sand,” LaVoy said.
Nesbitt recently submitted an eight-bill package to the House, a move he said was far more substantial than the proposals laid out by the Democrats.
The package has drawn criticism from a number of environmental groups for its controversial proposals, including keeping the 10 percent alternative energy mandate and redefining the definition of renewable energy sources.
It also aims to eradicate the sourcing of energy from outside the state, which currently makes up 10 percent of Michigan’s energy supply. Residents or companies who are eligible to source energy from outside the state avoid in-state fees. Both Nesbitt and LaVoy argue this places a heavier burden on the other 90 percent of the market when it comes to rates and all residents should be made to pay their fair share.
The Sierra Club considers Nesbitt’s proposal a danger to Michigan’s clean energy future, Berkowitz said.
“We feel this is a major step back — in particular, the move to reclassify the burning of solid waste to be included as renewable energies,” he said. “This and the repealing of the efficiency standard are terrible policy choices.”
The Sierra Club’s stance on Snyder’s plan is more mixed. The governor’s call for more renewable energy and more investment in efficiency are promising, Berkowitz said, but the increased emphasis on natural gas could lead to more hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which the group opposes.
“About 55 to 60 percent of our energy in Michigan comes from coal. We also get 10 to 15 percent from nuclear plants and we currently get 10 percent from natural gas, and that is definitely considered to be a fossil fuel,” Berkowitz said.
Nesbitt defended his proposal, which he said would allow for a more flexible approach to energy production than the mandates currently allow.
“They aren’t flexible, they’re not adaptable to new rules and regulations, new technologies, they pick winners and losers in the marketplace,” Nesbitt said.
Nesbitt said he understands the legislature has a long way to go before a final energy package can be produced, and the process will likely stretch over the next several months.
LaVoy agreed there could be room for a policy without mandates, but said the state has gotten this far with mandates and they may yet have a role to play.
Berkowitz disagreed with the idea of dropping mandates completely.
“We think that increasing our renewable energy standard is the only way to guarantee cleaner air and cleaner water and more jobs for the people in Michigan,” he said.
By CAITLIN McARTHUR