Clean energy package policy changes earn mixed response from environmental advocates

By: - November 7, 2023 5:02 pm

Wes Muller/States Newsroom

In a push to advance Michigan’s clean energy industry and bring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan into state law, majority Democrats in the House and Senate have advanced bills aimed at transitioning Michigan to 100% clean energy sources by 2040. 

“With passage of these game-changing bills, Michigan will be a national leader on clean energy. These bills will help us make more clean, reliable energy right here in Michigan, creating tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, and lowering utility costs,” Whitmer said in a statement Friday.

While one of the bill packages received strong support from a number of environmental organizations, changes to a bill setting the state’s clean energy targets have left groups saying there is more to be done. 

In its initial version, Senate Bill 271 required Michigan energy companies to produce their energy from 100% renewable energy sources by 2035, including approved nuclear sources. While the initial version of the bill excluded energy sources like biomass, municipal solid waste, landfill gas, or fuel manufactured wholly or in a significant part from waste from the state’s definition of renewable energy sources, that standard has been pared back in later versions. 

Michigan House approves changes to clean energy siting, renewable standards and more

The current version of the bill passed the House on party lines on Friday.

It retained changes from the version passed by the Senate, including requiring energy companies to generate 60% of their energy from renewable sources including biomass, landfill gas made from solid waste, gas from methane digesters using municipal sewage waste, food waste and animal manure, and energy-generating incinerators in operation before Jan. 1, 2023.

However, the House placed additional restrictions on the use of incinerators, requiring companies to file a plan to decommission them by 2035, and retire the facilities by 2040. 

The versions of the bill passed in the House and Senate also require energy companies to meet a 100% clean energy standard by 2040, that includes nuclear and 90% effective carbon capture technology. 

Ahead of the vote in the Senate, Andrea Pierce, network manager for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Anishinaabek Caucus, sent out a statement calling on lawmakers and climate nonprofit leaders to withdraw their support for the bill following the carveout for landfill gas, biomass, gas from a methane digester and its inclusion of incinerators and natural gas using carbon capture technology. 

“These harmful elements are included in S.B. 271 because its drafting process was an egregious miscarriage of procedural justice. Environmental justice organizations and communities were ignored from the start, while corporate polluters chipped away at the bill,” Pierce said in the statement. 

Pierce sent a similar letter to members of the House ahead of its vote on the bills.

Ahead of the vote, state Rep. Dylan Wegela (D-Garden City) introduced an amendment to remove natural gas with carbon capture as a clean energy source, citing the negative impacts of natural gas on communities of color. The amendment was not adopted. 

Wegela criticized the standard at a Dearborn rally over the weekend for a progressive Green New Deal. 

“The problem is, this legislation [SB271] is going to be billed as 100% clean energy, and that’s just false,” Wegela said in a statement.

“This legislation had carveout exceptions for natural gas, carbon capture, and even a trash incinerator. None of these are carbon free or clean, and all of them disproportionately impact communities of lower income and communities of color. 100% green energy by 2040 is simply too late. We need a Green New Deal,” Wegela said. 

State Rep. Dylan Wegela (D-Garden City) | Ken Coleman

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a global nonprofit organization supporting clean energy, Senate Bill 271 would get the state to 72% of its 2030 climate goals. 

Following the passage of the bills through the House, the Sierra Club released a statement noting its efforts to get rid of the carveout for trash incinerators. 

“Sierra Club went to the mat to support [environmental justice] activists’ demand to remove the Kent County Trash Incinerator carve-out in the definition of renewable energy. Trash incineration is not renewable energy, and burning trash harms public health by releasing dangerous chemicals into the air and creating toxic ash,” the statement read. 

The carveout remained in the bill with some modifications. The Sierra Club said although there is more work to be done, it was proud to help put the Senate’s Clean Energy package over the finish line.

“Thanks to thousands of calls made into lawmakers’ offices, countless messages to leaders, and dozens of in-person meetings, Michigan lawmakers finally took action to tackle climate change,” said Christy McGillivray, Sierra Club Michigan’s legislative and political director.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also showed some trepidation over the bills, saying many crucial aspects were left out of the bill. 

“In the lead up to passage of this legislation, utility companies exerted their influence to protect their bottom-lines, and they need to be held accountable for profiting from dangerous pollution and holding Michigan back from the benefits that come with a just and equitable clean energy future,” James Gignac, the union’s senior policy manager, said in a statement. 

“We call on the state legislature and the governor to continue the unfinished work and ensure that every person in Michigan has access to clean, reliable, and affordable electricity,” Gignac said.

Some of the Union of Concerned Scientists policy recommendations include:

  • Empowering Michigan communities to participate in and directly benefit from clean energy development by requiring utilities to allow community solar and offering better incentives for ratepayers to install rooftop solar. 
  • Requiring the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to consider climate, equity, affordability, and environmental justice in all cases before the commission, particularly rate cases. 
  • Enacting policies that cap individual utility bills if the household income is below a certain level and increase the amount of compensation available to low-income customers who suffer outages. 
  • Requiring that cumulative impacts, or the full spectrum of pollution sources, are considered in policies and permitting regulations. 
  • Banning investor-owned utilities from using ratepayer dollars for political contributions and enacting other lobbying-related ethics reforms to ensure companies do not have outsized influence to block measures supporting a cleaner, more affordable and just energy system. 

Other environmental organizations said the package is a strong step toward a transition to clean energy, but called on lawmakers to do more. 

“This Clean Energy Future Package puts Michigan on the path to have some of the fastest buildout of renewable energy like wind and solar in the nation – rapidly cleaning up our air and protecting our Great Lakes and drinking water,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. 

Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council, said that while environmental groups were forced to make compromises, the bills make significant progress toward cutting pollution and establishing Michigan as a leader in fighting climate change. 

Lisa DelBuono, executive director of Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action, told the Advance she was thrilled the Senate’s Clean Energy Package passed and that these policies will reduce greenhouse gas, decreasing climate health impacts and cleaning up the air. 

DelBuono also shared her disappointment at the extension of Michigan’s 100% clean energy timeline from 2035 to 2040, as well as concerns at the inclusion of biogas and animal manure as renewable energy sources. 

“When we think about animal manure, I worry about concentrated feedlots — which would probably be the source of animal manure — and the health effects associated with those. Those feedlots often use antibiotics and can exacerbate antibiotic resistance,” DelBuono said.

Utilizing manure as a renewable resource would be a twofold mistake, DelBuono said. She said there are health concerns related to concentrated animal feedlots and manure is still a carbon-based energy source, slowing the transition to carbon-free sources. 

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Meanwhile, clean energy advocacy and industry groups cheered the passage of the clean energy standard, alongside its companion bills and another clean energy package focused on siting large-scale renewable energy developments.

 “This legislation marks a historic step forward for Michigan’s clean energy economy,” Markus Pitchford, central regional director for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement. “The package will bring billions of dollars of investments and thousands of new jobs to the state — from project development and installation to manufacturing.”

However, Pierce maintains that the new clean energy standard bill is not a climate win. 

“Environmental justice was not part of this and I think that we have been dismissed and ignored,” Pierce said. 

The original version of the Senate’s clean energy standard was a good bill that environmental justice advocates could have worked with, and that could have made peoples’ lives better, Pierce said. The current version has left advocates with a lot of things to try and remove from the bill.

“It’s hard to get a bill through … much less get a bill that changes things,” Pierce said.

“I’m just hoping that Gov. Whitmer will think about the people of Michigan and the citizens and the Indigenous people of the state, and not sign it,” Pierce 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.