Michigan clean energy bills await Gov. Whitmer’s signature: U-M experts available to comment

November 9, 2023
Concept illustration of alternative energy. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney

The Michigan Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a package of clean energy bills, including one that requires Michigan to get 100% of its electricity from clean sources by 2040. The bills now move to the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is expected to sign them.

Other bills in the package give state regulators power to approve zoning applications for solar and wind energy generation facilities, shifting control away from local zoning authorities.

University of Michigan experts are available to discuss the bills and their likely impacts.

Sarah Mills is director of the Center for EmPowering Communities at the Graham Sustainability Institute, where she manages U-M’s partnership with the Michigan Office of Climate and Energy, helping communities across the state consider energy in their land use planning, zoning and other policymaking. She is an expert on farmland preservation, rural prosperity, and planning and zoning for renewable energy.

“The siting bills in this package respond to well-known problems with the current siting process—including that too few communities accept the projects proposed by developers,” she said. “It’s a barrier to the state meeting its renewable energy targets. To remedy this, the bills adopt an approach used in other states, which gives state government oversight of the largest projects.

“However, it’s precisely the largest projects that have the greatest impact on local communities—and these bills do not even consider local government land-use plans for energy or other uses. Current research shows that this approach often backfires, resulting in procedural injustices that significantly diminish public support for large projects.

“When the siting bills take effect, no doubt more large wind and solar projects will be built. Long-term, however, we could see those projects move forward against some host communities’ wishes. This situation would only reinforce the idea that renewables are foisted upon rural communities without consent, further stoking the urban-rural divide.”

Contact: 734-763-0726, sbmills@umich.edu

Jonathan Overpeck is an interdisciplinary climate scientist and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability. He is an expert on climate and weather extremes, sea-level rise, the impacts of climate change and options for dealing with it. He served as a lead author on the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 and 2014 reports.

“It’s great to see Michigan really step up as a climate action leader, and none too soon given the rapidly growing number and size of climate disasters that are plaguing our country and the world,” he said. “Michigan is not immune, and this new legislation will help curb the impacts of extreme temperature and rainfall on the state, and also help provide vital protections for the Great Lakes and their coastlines. It’s not all we can do, but it’s a great start.”

Contact: 520-369-0117, overpeck@umich.edu

Michelle Martinez is the inaugural director of the Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment at the School for Environment and Sustainability. She served as the executive director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and continues to serve on its board. She also serves on the board of directors of We the People Michigan and is a contributing columnist at Planet Detroit, an online publication serving Detroit audiences with climate and environmental news.

“The renewable energy bills do a number of critical things for pollution-free renewable energy, though it’s not the vision for a transition to a fair and equitable renewable energy economy,” she said. “At the core, it’s the same issue we’ve always seen, which is the utilities’ undue political influence in Lansing, which makes space for extension of dirty energy, both of which need to be addressed.

“What Michiganders need, as inflation continues to rise, is more affordable energy bills for low-income households and fair compensation when the power goes out. The other big thing is the protection of our health. While the Michigan Public Service Commission must now consider it, this legislation doesn’t mandate them to make decisions that would safeguard communities who may host fossil gas, carbon pipelines or nuclear and nuclear waste.

“Lastly, this bill incentivizes what we call false solutions, including the expansion of fracked fossil gas with ‘carbon capture,’ and nuclear—a longtime conundrum at the point of uranium extraction, transit and nuclear waste disposal. What’s clear is that these considerations left behind Michigan’s most vulnerable, giving utility companies fossil fuel loopholes to exploit and campaign lobbying a constant.”

Contact: mamz@umich.edu

Todd Allen, professor and chair of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, is director of the Fastest Path to Zero Initiative, which helps communities find the right sustainable energy solutions for their needs.

“Michigan has set an aggressive target for creating a 100% net-zero-emissions energy system using sources like nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower by 2040,” he said. “This is a pragmatic approach that recognizes the value in using a range of available energy production possibilities, getting the best value of each across the energy system.

“Giving the Michigan Public Service Commission the authority to approve large solar, wind and battery projects, overriding local government authority, will require very thoughtful decision-making processes by the MPSC. The state overruling local concerns could backfire and lead to a voter-driven reversal in the legislation, ultimately slowing down a clean energy transition.”

Contact: traumich@umich.edu

Madeleine Krol is the clean energy land-use specialist for the Center for EmPowering Communities at the Graham Sustainability Institute. She helps Michigan’s rural communities consider energy in their land use planning, zoning and other policymaking through U-M’s partnership with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Her research focuses on renewable energy zoning throughout the Great Lakes.

“We frequently engage with rural communities, talking with township boards and planning commissions.These interactions reveal that each community’s perspective on renewable energy is as unique as its land-use and economic development plans,” she said. “This diversity in approaches to regulating renewable energy is also reflected in the nation’s first renewable energy zoning database, which we developed. The database includes over 1,350 zoning ordinances from across the state.

“While many townships, cities and villages have put restrictive ordinances in place—some inadvertently and others intentionally, due to ambiguity in the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act—the range of regulations underscores the need for a nuanced and context-specific approach when siting renewable energy projects in alignment with a community’s land use and economic development goals.

“State-level processes with no upper limit on the scale of a project, as is the case with HB 5120, run the risk of some communities being asked to shoulder an undue share of this infrastructure, and continue to leave communities who desire the economic benefits of renewables to revitalize previously disturbed lands at a disadvantage. Existing legislation lacks clarity on whether communities must allow all renewables, can choose between wind or solar, or must permit unlimited-sized projects rather than confining them to a specific area. Regardless of new legislation, we must resolve these issues to achieve our clean energy goals.”

Contact: 734-763-0061, krol@umich.edu

Volker Sick, professor of mechanical engineering, is the faculty director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and the director of the Global CO2 Initiative. The initiative aims to accelerate the development and deployment of commercially viable technologies that capture and use CO2, in collaboration with research organizations and industrial partners around the world.

“The State of Michigan should be commended on its decisive actions to fight climate change. The transition to a net-zero carbon future requires fast, large-scale changes to our energy, manufacturing and infrastructure systems, amongst other efforts. In the process, entirely new jobs will likely be created. For example, we will need additional production and manufacturing workers if we use captured carbon dioxide from natural gas power plants or cement factories and convert it to make useful, profitable products. Broad, state-legislature-guided coordination and support is needed to ensure swift and equitable action.”

Contact: vsick@umich.edu