Michigan debate reopens on renewable energy standards
By Patrick Howard
Capital News Service
LANSING – Proponents of Michigan’s alternative energy optimization standards are at odds with a suggestion to eliminate current standards.
The proposal by Rep. Ray Franz, R-Onekama, would repeal standards that require 10 percent of energy generated by utility companies to be renewable by 2015.
The standards, adopted in 2008, include guidelines to utility companies.
According to Jim Weeks, executive director of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association in Lansing, Franz’ bill could address those guidelines that concern small companies.
“There is a lot of administrative costs and burden placed on the staff of smaller utilities,” Weeks said. He said several companies don’t have the money or resources to hire “energy specialists” and administrative positions that would accommodate current standards.
Weeks noted that those concerns were addressed to the Michigan Public Service Commission and his association was working on amending sections of the standards.
For small utility companies such as the Marquette Board of Light and Power, everyone is on board with energy efficiency. However, the discussion needed to happen, said executive director Kirby Juntila.
“There are always going to be issues with small companies when the government steps in and mandates,” he said.
“No one is arguing the validity and principle of energy efficiency,” Juntila said. “I think there are technicalities involved that must be addressed – with administrative costs being as high as they are – to allow for more flexibility based on community wants and needs.”
Bill Cook, general manager of the Zeeland Board of Public Works, also expressed support for energy efficiency, but stressed problems associated with the standard.
He said his utility collects an energy optimization fee from customers, but without an extremely large customer base, it doesn’t have enough revenue to cover higher administrative costs.
“What we’d like to be able to do is put money back in the consumers’ pockets to incentivize investment in energy-efficient products,” Cook said.
Ryan Werder, political director for the Michigan Leauge of Conservation Voters in Ann Arbor, said he isn’t convinced these concerns are as widespread or as pressing as skeptics make them seem.
“The overwhelming response is that the state is on track and we can do this,” Werder said.
He said the utilities in favor of the energy standard far outnumber those opposed to it, and the Public Service Commission, Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and utility companies Consumers Energy and DTE Energy have all noted its success.
“While Franz wants to repeal the standard and bottom it out at zero, groups are working to increase the standard to 25 percent by 2025,” Werder said.
Werder said the Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs coalition in East Lansing is collecting signatures to make the increased standard an initiative to be voted on the November ballot.
Hugh McDiarmid Jr. of the Michigan Environmental Council also noted the current standards’ success and said it would be a “big step backwards” to repeal such a highly lauded program.
He said the timing of Franz’ bill is interesting, noting a Public Service Commission report released in February highlighting the program’s success. “They ultimately discovered it saves rate payers’ money,” McDiarmid said.
According to the report, the renewable energy standard created more than $100 million in clean energy investments from 2008 to 2011. The report also said renewable energy costs significantly less than coal, and that Michigan is on track to meeting the 10 percent requirement by 2015.
McDiarmid said there are ways to “adjust and fine tune the program”, but repealing it is shortsighted and ridiculous.
However, Weeks said something must be done.
“If you have a million customers, you’re probably going to have enough of a base to make things work,” he said. “Our continued discussions with the commission will hopefully go a long way toward addressing these concerns.”
Co-sponsors of the bill include Reps. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo; Ken Yonker, R-Caledonia; Paul Muxlow, R-Brown City; and Ken Goike, R-Ray Township.