In a political season when some have irresponsibly tried to taint clean energy with a partisan or ideological brush, voters in Michigan have a profound chance to tell power generators in their state and power brokers across the country that renewable energy is a common-sense centerpiece of our energy future.
Michigan voters are being asked on November 6 whether the state’s utilities should be required to increase the percentage of electricity production from home-grown renewable energy, from the current 10 percent target by 2015 to 25 percent by 2025.
This is an extremely important decision for Michigan. And because this is the only straight-up opportunity in this national election cycle to demonstrate strong public support for cleaning up our energy supply and because opponents are brazenly throwing huge sums of money and buckets of misleading facts into the fight, this vote has also become important for the future of our national energy system.
(You won’t be surprised to learn that the Koch brothers are among the underwriters of the opposition. In fact, the Koch-front group Americans for Prosperity is going so far as offering Michigan voters discount gasoline in a rather transparent attempt to buy support for their anti-clean energy agenda.)
If the opponents win, it will embolden the backward-looking utilities and the fossil fuel industry to ramp up their campaign to thwart the transition to a clean energy economy. A victory for clean energy helps continue the exciting momentum of the clean energy transformation — with its benefits for human health, job growth, and home-grown power — that is well underway.
Which numbers can I believe?
For undecided Michigan voters, it can be difficult to validate the veracity of the facts and numbers put forth by the two major sides in the debate. Economic arguments can especially get confusing fast.
The two utilities that are leading the fight to reject Proposition 3 — Detroit Edison and Consumers Energy — argue that a 25 percent renewable electricity standard will cost $12 billion, or thousands of dollars per Michigan resident over time.
Proposition 3’s supporters, the Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs Coalition (of which my organization is a member), cite independent studies that conclude meeting the higher standard will cost the average Michigan household about 50 cents a month over the first decade, to pay for the initial investment, and will lower rates over time, starting in 2027, due to decreased dependence on increasingly-costly fossil fuels.
Supporters say thousands of jobs will be created by Prop 3 and opponents say thousands of jobs will be lost.
The utilities insist there isn’t enough wind and solar capacity in-state to meet the 25 percent standard while analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that Michigan’s land-based wind resource alone (not counting the wind blowing across Lake Michigan) has the potential to produce more than five times the amount of electricity it will take to meet the 2025 standard.
To sort out which facts are credible, I’d recommend looking at what scientists call “observed data,” what a courtroom lawyer would cite as “evidence,” or what the rest of us might simply frame as a question: What can we learn from past experience and performance?
What the hard evidence shows
For example, what have been the impacts — for good or ill — of the effort to meet the current 10 percent renewable requirement?
The Michigan Public Service Commission, whose primary job is to ensure that the state’s residents, businesses, and factories get the electricity they need at an affordable cost, concluded that nearly every utility (56 of 59 power generators, covering 98 percent of Michigan’s customers) is on track to meet the 2015 target at lower cost than expected. The vast majority of consumers has seen no additional costs or increased costs of less than $1 a month. Wind power contracts are being signed at below the cost of new coal power, and renewable prices are continuing their downward trend.
Here’s some additional documented data: Michigan utilities sent nearly $1.3 billion out of state in 2010 and more than $10 billion between 2002 and 2010 to pay for imported coal, from states like Wyoming, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
And the price Michigan utilities have paid for a ton of coal has more than doubled over the past 10 years. With nearly 60 percent of Michigan’s electricity reliant on out-of-state coal, that’s an economic vulnerability of some urgency. More home-generated wind and solar energy will keep billions of dollars in the Michigan economy over time and protect against rising coal and natural gas prices.
Another observation based on hard facts: The renewable energy sector is more than up to this challenge. During the scariest economic crisis since 1929, the wind and solar industries have doubled in size, in terms of jobs created, power generated, and investments of private dollars. A study by the Energy Innovation Business Council has tabulated that renewable energy industries across Michigan support nearly 21,000 jobs and contribute almost $5 billion to the state’s economy each year.
This remarkable growth has given new life to American manufacturing. The percentage of American-made wind turbines, towers, blades, and gearboxes that went into American-based wind installations rose from 35 percent to 67 percent since 2005. More than 500 factories making wind power components are now spread across the country, with many manufacturers concentrating in states with ambitious renewable electricity standards, like Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, California, and Texas.
Michigan, with its strong manufacturing base and highly-skilled work force, has already attracted a significant share of wind and solar industry manufacturing business, as documented by the Environmental Law and Policy Center in a study last year. Voter adoption of Proposition 3 would send a powerful signal to additional clean energy manufacturers that Michigan is a place to set up shop.
The experience to date is that the direct jobs created by these clean tech industries are high quality and diverse: engineering, industrial design, bending metal, pouring concrete, trucking, assembly, repair.
And the economic benefits come in other forms too, like providing lease income for farmers who host a wind or solar installation, or the boost in property tax income for community needs, or the stabilization of electricity rates by reducing reliance on fossil fuels that have volatile prices.
Lastly, what has been the experience of states that have led the way? Iowa and South Dakota now generate more than 20 percent of their electricity needs from wind, while Minnesota and North Dakota generate more than 13 percent. Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota are in the top five in installed wind capacity. Seventeen states have renewable electricity standards of more than 20 percent and Minnesota and Illinois are among the highest with standards of 25 to 30 percent.
Michigan has the ability to join those national leaders in increased energy independence. The state has more than enough wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower to meet a 25 percent target and the technological and manufacturing know-how to design, build, install, and maintain that clean infrastructure.
None of what I’ve written above is speculation, but rather documented evidence that Michigan voters can independently check out.
The stakes for Michigan and our country
These impressive results bode well for the future, as the price of renewable energy is likely to continue dropping while coal prices rise, and advanced clean energy technologies continue to become more productive.
In the face of that progress, fossil-fuel funded forces have mounted a half dozen attempts this year to freeze or roll back existing state renewable standards. A strong ballot victory in Michigan will put an exclamation point on those earlier messages to the utility industry and encourage other states to create or strengthen their own renewable electricity standards.
And that’s why Michigan voters have a powerful voice this election to help ensure a bright and clean energy future, in their great state and across our great land.
Feature image: © iStockphoto.com/Redrockonline Productions
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