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Michigan leaders' smart compromises on clean energy key to industrial future


2/12/2017

The following is an opinion piece by the Joyce Foundation’s Ellen Alberding and Mott Foundation’s Ridgway White. It was originally published in Crain’s Detroit Business on February 12, 2017.

These days it can seem as though compromise is a lost art. For years now in Washington, political parties have drawn hard lines they've refused to cross, and the sides look even further apart with the new administration and Congress.

Yet in the Midwest, three states recently bridged differences to forge energy policies that modernize the grid, cut pollution and position the region as a major competitor in the 21st century clean energy economy. As foundation leaders dedicated to policy solutions that advance our collective well-being, we're proud that our lawmakers were able to see past partisan politics and craft policy that moves our region forward.

In Michigan, two years of contentious negotiations went down to the wire in December, when lawmakers worked through the night on the last day of the session to pass a bill that delivers real benefits to citizens in the state — boosting renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency and paving the way to replace the state's old, dirty, coal-fired power plants.

"It was a great bipartisan effort and a great case of watching coalitions coming together," said Gov. Rick Snyder, who was instrumental in brokering the deal.

The deal was Michigan's first energy overhaul in eight years. It increases the amount of clean energy utilities must use, from 10 percent in 2015 to 15 percent by the end of 2021, and creates new incentives for utilities to help customers cut energy waste. It also preserves fair electric rates for households with solar panels. That's critical to ensuring solar power remains financially viable for residents.

These are smart moves for Michigan — not only to reduce pollution but also to stimulate the economy and save consumers money.

Clean energy currently employs nearly 90,000 people in the state. It's estimated the current clean energy requirement has spurred $3 billion in investments and has the potential to attract another $4.3 billion by 2021. The energy efficiency programs are estimated to save customers over $1 billion a year. Earlier proposals to freeze the clean energy requirement would have caused the state to lose out on future investments.

Perhaps more important, failing to ratchet up the state's commitment to clean energy would have sent a signal that Michigan is not serious about clean energy in general — or the innovation and opportunity that go with it.

The clean-energy transformation is today's industrial revolution. Wind turbines, solar power arrays, electric cars — these are industrial products that come with industrial-scale wages and profits. To ignore this would be to ignore one of the greatest opportunities for wealth creation in the modern economy.

Seizing this opportunity is what leaders in Ohio and Illinois had in mind when they also took steps late last year that were favorable to clean energy.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich vetoed a bill that would have extended a freeze on the state's clean energy requirement.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed comprehensive energy legislation in December to keep existing nuclear plants in operation while dramatically expanding investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

In the last presidential election, much was made about creating jobs, especially in the industrial Midwest. That debate continues in Washington, with the two sides as far apart as ever.

Here, on the ground, we're compromising, and we're passing sound policy to create jobs and wealth in the new clean-energy economy. Let's recognize the steps our leaders took — and demand they go further in the months and years ahead.

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