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Plugged In: No Time to Wait on Renewables

Snyder is willing to talk next year, but are the utilities?

Power to Change, Proposal 3 | November 28, 2012 | By Jim Dulzo

Plugged In

Plugged In is the energy-related blog of Jim Dulzo, MLUI's senior energy policy specialist. You can harass him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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Gov. Rick Snyder said he’s ready to start a conversation next year about resetting the goal for renewables. (Photo: Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs)

The ruckus over renewables isn’t over: Proposal 3’s advocates sound even more determined to boost renewables goals beyond their current “10 percent by 2015” target and make Michigan a jobs-rich, global, renewables manufacturing leader.

“This is not the end, it is the beginning,” said Diane Byrum, of Byrum Fisk, which led the Prop 3 campaign.

She may be right. Although the state’s two largest utilities don’t want to talk about renewables again for at least three years, on Wednesday Gov. Rick Snyder used his Special Message on Energy and the Environment to say he’s ready to start a conversation next year about resetting the goal for renewables.

Given DTE and Consumers’ ferocious air war against the 25 x 25 proposal, their “don’t want to discuss it” attitude is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is advocates’ optimism, based on a new poll finding powerful, bipartisan support for renewables—but not constitutional amendments.

“We’ve had a loud public debate,” said Ryan Werder, Michigan League of Conservation Voters political director, “and learned people don’t like amending the constitution for any issue, but that even after we were outspent by between three- and five-to-one, Michiganders still want renewables. That’s exciting. We can’t let it sit—certainly not until 2015.”

Yet Jeff Holyfield, Consumers’ communications director who acknowledged his company would have fewer renewables without the current mandate, said nothing should change before utilities hit their targets in 2015—and then analyze the results.

DTE senior media representative Alejandro Bodipo-Memba agreed: “It makes sense to talk once we reach our 10 percent goal.”

Neither spokesman could say their company has a vision for a renewable-energy future. Both said their firms take things a few years at a time; as technology, markets, and costs change, they adjust.

That’s not surprising; utilities are protected monopolies, and innovation is not their thing. Stockholder happiness, reliability, and low rates are.

Yet their renewables are going great guns—on schedule, profitable, and costing far less than predicted. Consumers slashed renewables surcharges from $2.50 to $0.52 because wind power’s so cheap; DTE’s surplus from its $3 surcharge will likely be refunded.

Meanwhile, established 25 x 25 leaders Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa see little effect on electric rates. Given volatile fuel costs (the price of coal has doubled in recent years, driving up Michigan’s rates, the Midwest’s highest), they see wind and even solar as good price hedges.

These are realities, not theories, and should be helping Michigan. It’s one reason Werder said stalling on renewables past 2015 is wrong.

“If we want to introduce certainty into the renewables market, we have to avoid that 2015 energy cliff,” he said. “Waiting to get to a point of complete uncertainty, and then analyzing renewables, is a terrible way to do business. We need to tell renewables companies if there’s a market here. Right now, the answer is ‘no.’” 

Prop 3 allies are thinking about pushing stockholders and lawmakers, mounting public education about coal’s soaring—and renewables’ plummeting—cost, and insisting on a public planning process for utilities to replace their oldest, dirtiest coal plants. 

In his special address, Gov. Snyder indicated he wants to see a broad, public discussion of the state’s clean energy future, and how to get there. In the meantime, some clean energy advocates, including the Clean Energy Coalition, said they’re disappointed the governor presented a broad and somewhat non-committal outline, rather than a clear, bold vision for energy.

The coalition says that, while it fully supports public discussions on renewables, it’s also true that the discussion has gone on for at least six years in the state. People want more renewables, and sooner rather than later. So CEN members intend to keep pushing hard for the state to pick up its relatively pokey pace on clean energy. 

“We’ve worked to get past coal for five years with many organizations,” Sierra Club Michigan Chapter’s Anne Woiwode said, “Our next steps will mesh with that.”

Businesses should be at the table, too, said former state representative Dan Scripps, president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, whose members split on Prop 3. He’s concerned about pausing renewables development and hopes for a discussion asking, “Approaching our goal, how do we go forward?”

The governor’s Special Message does offer hope for reaching agreement on next steps before 2015 arrives. As his energy advisor, Valerie Brader, pointed out last week, he has recently hinted that resetting renewables goals is still on the table.

“He said 10 percent renewables is not the right place to stop,” she said. “And we are grateful to now be able to forge a sensible policy for Michigan and not be locked into constitutional language.”

Jim Dulzo once thought he was going to be a nuclear engineer. As it turns out, he’s now MLUI’s senior energy policy specialist. MLUI is a member of the statewide Clean Energy Now coalition. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org

*A version of this column originally appeared on Nov. 27 in the Bridge, a publication featuring news and analysis from The Center for Michigan. 

(Please note: Comments are limited to 500 characters)


4195 days ago, 8:00pm | by Kevon Martis | Report Comment

Mr. Werder:

We just turned back from the "energy cliff" by nearly a 2-1 margin.


4195 days ago, 8:01pm | by Rosebud | Report Comment

Remove your post size limit and all those eloquent and clever long posts will reappear, debate will resume and you web traffic will rebound.


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