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State Ramps Up Green Jobs, but Pro-Coal Rally Heads to Lansing

New laws, Granholm policies creating more jobs than new coal plants would

October 5, 2009 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Peralta College
  While some trade unions fear the shift to clean energy, Michigan’s and the nation’s green industries are growing as coal power shrinks.
Now that a state agency has determined that Michigan has no need for the electricity from two proposed new coal-fired power plants, construction workers who want jobs building them are staging a “pro-coal” rally in Lansing tomorrow.

Clean energy advocates cheered last month when the Michigan Public Service Commission said that Michigan would have plenty of power until at least 2020 without building any new coal plants. But some state lawmakers—and the unions and utility executives who help finance their campaigns and convinced them to weaken last year’s clean-energy legislation—are joining the workers in attacking the commission’s finding and demanding that the two unneeded plants be built.

The coal proponents are worried that the MPSC analysis will convince the state to reject pending permits for the plants, which would generate large amounts of new power in a state with steadily declining electricity demand. They point out that building them would create several thousand jobs, while the Michigan Manufacturers Association and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce claim that the plants would help restore Michigan’s fallen factory economy.

Many of the lawmakers accuse the Granholm administration of violating a deal they said was made last fall to approve new coal plants in Michigan. They also say that the Department of Environmental Quality, which will decide the fate of both proposals, is now dragging its feet on permitting the plants and have threatened the agency with severe budget cuts. Last month several of them tried, but failed, to eliminating the agency by merging it with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, new clean-energy bills designed to foster tens of thousands of construction, manufacturing, retail, and installation jobs—and help make Michigan a world leader in the 21st-century energy economy—are awaiting action in the state Legislature. They would require utilities to invest in more energy efficiency and renewable energy technology, and allow state residents to make money by installing their own solar panels, wind turbines, and other clean energy generators on their homes or small businesses.

But Patrick "Shorty" Gleason, president of the Michigan Building and Construction Trade Council, told the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper that he sees new coal as a boon for construction workers. He expects about 2,000 of his members to don hard hats and carry signs on the Capitol lawn demanding MDEQ approve both plants.

“We look at this as an opportunity for people to go to work," Mr. Gleason said of Wolverine Power Supply Cooperatives’ proposed 600 MW Rogers City plant and Consumer Energy’s proposed 930 MW Bay City facility.

A spokesperson for Governor Granholm, who’s made building a green economy a centerpiece of her strategy to restart Michigan’s economy, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that she stands behind the order that led to the MPSC finding that Michigan does not need the power from the proposed plants.

“The governor thought that it was important to ensure that there was a need for power plants, and that is why she issued the executive directive,” said her spokeswoman, Megan Brown, referring to one of a set of clean-energy directives the governor issued in February. “Based on that directive, the Public Service Commission conducted a careful review of Michigan's future energy needs.”

Ms. Brown said that the DEQ is on track to make a final decision on the coal permit applications by the end of this year, and “those decisions will be based solely on appropriate federal and state laws.”

Clean-energy advocates say they hope that is true because they believe the laws would halt the plants. They add that canceling the coal plants would both protect and enhance the significant progress they see the Granholm administration making in building a clean-energy economy in Michigan.

Hot Pursuit of Green Jobs
Green energy experts and entrepreneurs have long argued that stopping coal and starting up a clean-energy economy is the best and quickest way to restart Michigan’s stalled manufacturing base and spark the growth of permanent, well-paying jobs here. They point out that building expensive new coal plants ties up billions of hard-to-find investment dollars in a fading, 20th-century technology, and that those dollars would generate a much larger number of jobs if they were invested in the clean-energy economy.

They also point out that new coal plants are very expensive and would drive up electricity rates while strongly discouraging green investment capital, which flows to states with policies that create vigorous markets for the new technology.

Governor Granholm’s Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, which houses MPSC, is hotly pursuing that goal via traditional tax incentives, mildly pro-green state laws enacted last fall, and several other, remarkably comprehensive clean-energy directives issued by the governor at the same time that she ordered MPSC to review the need for the proposed plants, and report back to MDEQ.

Even though MPSC staff is still translating some of the directives into new rules, the overall strategy seems to be succeeding.

A DELEG report released in September, for example, counted more than 8,000 construction workers now building or expanding clean-energy manufacturing facilities in the state—far more than even the most optimistic coal proponents would claim for the two proposed coal plants.

In August, Michigan snagged the lion’s share of battery technology development grants from the U.S. Department of Energy—$1.35 billion—andhelped close a deal that will convert an idled Wixom auto plant into a battery and solar panel factory initially employing 4,000 workers. And this past May, a DELEG study found that Michigan’s green sector now employs more than 100,000 people and that the only industrial sector in the state showing growth was its green sector, including clean-energy manufacturing.

Governor Granholm’s other February directives aim to generate new clean-energy jobs by allowing electric utilities to make a profit by selling efficiency, not more energy; helping homeowners invest in energy efficiency that quickly saves them money; and facilitating faster paybacks to home and business owners who install renewable energy devices.

The strategy would establish a huge new market—Michigan’s nine million residents—for companies that manufacture and install efficiency and renewable energy technology, from advanced light bulbs to building efficiency retrofits, to parts for wind turbines, solar panels, methane digesters, batteries, and more.

Legislative Slowdown
But many of Michigan’s clean energy pioneers say that state lawmakers are not doing enough to support the governor’s “go green” economic development plan and are, in fact, slowing it down by insisting on new coal plants and a very slow approach to clean-energy legislation.

They add that they are baffled at state power brokers’ continued loyalty to the utilities and coal interests at a time when so many new jobs of all sorts, including construction, could be created in the green energy industry if all of the right policies were quickly put in place, as they have in a number of other states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, and California.

Richard Orawiec, proprietor of BTF Solar in Fennville, Mich., got into the clean-energy business more than 20 years ago, and retails solar products, particularly hot water heaters. In an interview with the news service, Mr. Orawiec said the push for more coal plants in Michigan is foolish because it would devastate the renewables industry, which like other, much better established industries, was slammed by last year’s economic crash.

“In all cases, the building of big coal-fired plants suppresses the market,” he said, adding that increased use of solar products and small-scale energy production by individuals, in conjunction with comprehensive energy efficiency, “are the silver bullets to the vampire because, for a utility, they reduce the need for a coal plant.”

Mr. Orawiec said he’s very frustrated with green energy policy in Michigan. He sees last fall’s clean-energy mandates as too weak and filled with loopholes that favor utilities and harm the renewable energy industry, including efforts to build and sell smaller-scale solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable sources.

He said that the utility lobbyists helped to weaken the legislation, and then signed off on it in exchange for allowing the state’s two biggest electric utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, to re-monopolize their markets and quietly approving a deal to allow more coal plants to be built.

“Our legislators spend their time on energy policy asking the utilities, ‘What do you want us to do?’” Mr. Orawiec said. “It’s sick, but that’s what they do. We live in a state where 90 percent of all electric sales [by DTE and Consumers] are guaranteed by the government to [those] two private corporations. It’s crazy.”

He said bad policy by the Legislature and political leaders, combined with the influence of massive amounts of special interest money from the utilities, keeps renewables at a never-ending disadvantage, and last year’s economic collapse only made things worse.

“There is no market now,” Mr. Orawiec said of small-scale clean-energy technology.

Administration Moves Forward
Meanwhile, the governor’s February energy efficiency and homegrown green energy directives, which need MPSC rather than legislative approval, are moving forward and, green jobs advocates say, could help revive those markets in the midst of the state and nation’s historic economic crisis.

Judy Palnau, an MPSC spokeswoman, said that her agency is now working on the “Michigan Saves” program, which will finance the installation of energy efficiency measures in Michigan homes through a revolving trust fund that eliminates “up front costs for utility customers.”

The state recently awarded $8 million to Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy research and communications firm, to promote and manage the fund. Ms. Palnau sees the program as a win for everyone.

“The key is you are making available to customers energy efficiency measures that maybe they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, because of the up-front costs,” she said. “Over the long haul, the upgrades would be paid for through the savings you realize through increased energy efficiency.”

And the agency just wrapped up its revamped “net metering” rules, which will now allow all utility customers in the state to install small-scale renewable energy generators and require utilities to buy the green energy. Ms. Palnau said MPSC has significantly improved its original net metering rules, which were first issued several years ago and failed to attract much interest.

“The credit (for the clean energy) is at the full retail rate, which is a significant difference than in the past,” she said. “A lot of people felt the old rules did not compensate them adequately, and the belief is the new and improved rules are significantly better.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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