Sierra Club head Ben Jealous advocates in Michigan for clean energy tech production

By: - September 7, 2023 4:53 am

Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous took a kayak tour of Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood during a visit on Sept. 5, 2023. | Sierra Club

Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, told the Michigan Advance during a visit to Detroit this week that passing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s climate package would be a game-changer for ensuring communities most impacted by climate change can benefit from federal investments. 

From the introduction of Senate Democrats’ “Clean Energy Future” plan in March to Whitmer’s call for a 100% clean energy standard in her “What’s Next” address last week, Michigan Democrats have championed policies to transition the state’s energy grid to renewable sources in a bid to meet the governor’s climate goals and improve the state’s energy reliability.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlines her fall legislative priorities during a “What’s Next Address” in Lansing on Aug. 30, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Passing legislation to meet these goals would bring hundreds of millions of federal dollars to the state and would improve lives, Jealous said.

“It would be a game changer, especially on [Detroit’s] east side and other places where you can see power outages stretch from days and even into weeks,” he said.

During his visit to Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday, Jealous took a kayak tour of the city’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood — which has faced repeated issues with flooding tied to climate change and aging infrastructure — as well as a tour of the state’s most polluted ZIP code, 48217. The area hosts dozens of facilities contributing to pollution and is home to predominantly Black and Hispanic residents.  

In an interview with the Advance on Tuesday, Jealous said it was a pleasure to return to the green movement. He previously was the Democratic nominee for Maryland governor in 2018 and served as the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association alongside other positions in advocacy, venture capital and education. 

“One of the things you learn in the Black civil rights movement is the importance of local campaigns, the importance of national leaders coming in to support local groups in their organizing efforts,” Jealous said.

When he was 20, Jealous traveled across the country as a Student Environmental Action Coalition Speaker campaigning against the North American Federal Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as part of a coalition with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

Environmental advocates and unions remained critical of the agreement, arguing it led to the outsourcing of jobs and pollution, and encouraging dependency on fossil fuels. NAFTA was later replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which took effect in July 2020

“As a lifelong and environmentalist who grew up in a family that was both an NAACP family and a Sierra Club family. It’s especially rewarding to step into national leadership in the environmental movement at this moment, because this really is our anti-NAFTA moment,” Jealous said. 

“All those technologies that we had been championing and heralding the arrival of for decades are finally here. Solar and wind are now the cheapest way to produce power and the most resilient. EVs are real and they are cheaper to power and cheaper to operate by a lot. And so the question then becomes, where are they built?” Jealous said. 

From an environmental and consumer perspective, there is every reason to manufacture these technologies in the U.S. with union labor, Jealous said. 

“What the [2022 federal] Inflation Reduction Act really empowers us to do is get back to an economy that lifts all boats, where America is not just the place creating the game changing technologies — as we kind of always are — but we’re also once again the place that makes it, that produces it, that manufacturers them and ships them,” Jealous said.

“To me, that’s like, that’s the most urgent part of this fight is to make sure that the green economy is truly an economy that lifts all boats,” he said. 

Marathon Petroleum Corporation’s Detroit Refinery, which is located in the most polluted ZIP code in the state. | Sierra Club

The Advance asked Jealous about what Michigan should be doing to ensure an equitable transition to clean energy technology. 

Jealous said as the auto industry transitions from fossil fuel to electric vehicles, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) were right on the mark in their demands for electric vehicles to be produced in the same places, with the same workers who are represented by the same union and paid a similar, if not better, wage. 

“It’s reasonable, it’s right and it’s responsible. This is the way we should operate as a nation,” Jealous said.

When it comes to transitioning Michigan’s energy grid to renewable sources, Jealous said DTE Energy, one of the state’s largest energy companies, was the biggest obstacle.

“The number one thing they don’t want you to know is that solar and wind power are the cheapest form of power and the most resilient forms of power,” Jealous said. 

“Shifting to a distributed grid, investing in massively upgrading the power grid in Detroit and throughout the state of Michigan would be a game changer in every positive respect,” Jealous said. “But like so many power companies, they’re stuck on stupid, they’re addicted to old ways of doing things, and they’re willing to pay almost any amount of money to keep Michigan stuck in the energy Stone Age when there’s a better future right there that they could embrace.”

While the energy company agreed in a settlement in July that it would retire its coal plants by 2032, increase its buildout of renewable energy, and expand its cap limiting the number of customers who can generate their own energy, advocates have committed to ensuring the company follows through on a transition to clean energy sources.  

The Advance also asked Jealous about the inclusion of approved nuclear energy in the Senate’s clean energy standard bill and the inclusion of $150 million in the state budget to reactivate the Palisades nuclear plant in Van Buren County. 

“Nuclear power is the only form of power that gets more and more expensive every year,” Jealous said. 

“It is literally the only form of energy with a reverse learning curve. A learning curve is what, you know, is what allows technologies to generally get cheaper and cheaper every year, including energy technology,” Jealous said. “And that works across every form of energy except for nuclear.”

Michigan Congressional Dems rally with UAW for ‘fair contract’

The Clean Energy Standard proposed in the House would not include nuclear as a renewable resource when transitioning the state to 100% clean energy sources by 2035. 

While in Michigan Jealous told the Advance he would be meeting with lawmakers and local advocates, UAW President Shawn Fain, noting his history with the union stretched back to his time fighting against NAFTA.

Jealous said the Sierra Club is “very supportive” of the UAW’s demands for workers to be included in the auto-industry’s transition to producing electric vehicles. 

“We are very concerned that the workers of Detroit get treated justly in this transition, and we want to know all the ways that we as a club can help,” Jealous said. 


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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson covers state government alongside health care, business and the environment. A graduate of Michigan State University, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He previously covered community events, breaking news, state policy and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.