Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Signs Historic Climate Change Legislation

Jon King, Michigan Advance

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a slate of bills Tuesday that take her proposals from the MI Healthy Climate Plan and make them into state law.

Held at Detroit’s Eastern Market, the ceremony followed House passage earlier this month of a half-a-dozen pieces of climate change legislation from Democrats that address, among other issues, clean energy standards, energy waste and affordability, and providing state regulators authority over permitting clean energy projects.

“Today is a huge win for Michigan families, for Michigan businesses, and for future generations of Michiganders,” said Whitmer.

“We’ve been working toward this day for a long time. I unrolled the MI Healthy Climate Plan in 2021 and informed by a lot of stakeholders and a lot of educated minds with the thought, ‘How can Michigan become a leader?’ We outlined a lot of goals in these bills. Our plans were ambitious. We had no idea what the legislature would look like in 2023, but we knew the clock was ticking. And look at us now with this crop of legislators who took this on, who did the hard work. We got it done.”

Whitmer said the bills will lower household utility costs by an average of $145 a year, create 160,000 “good-paying” jobs, and bring nearly $8 billion of federal tax dollars home to Michigan for clean energy projects. With the signing, she said Michigan becomes a national leader on clean energy.

“Together we are protecting our air, our water, and our land, while focusing on taking climate change head on,” she said.

The bills Whitmer signed into law are:

  • Senate Bill 271, which requires energy companies to meet a 100% clean energy standard by 2040
  • Senate Bill 273, which increases the state’s energy waste reduction standards and creates goals for further energy savings.
  • Senate Bill 277, which allows farmers to rent out their land for solar energy generation while still participating in the state’s farmland and open space preservation program.
  • Senate Bill 502, which instructs the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) — the body that regulates Michigan energy companies — to weigh factors like equity, environmental justice, affordability, public health and more when reviewing energy companies’ operations plans.
  • Senate Bill 519, which creates a new Community and Worker Economic Transition Office within the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, aimed at facilitating the shift from fossil fuel to clean energy jobs.
  • House Bill 5120, which provides the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) with the authority to approve large scale renewable energy projects — including solar, wind and battery storage – removing that exclusive control from local governments.

State Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), lead sponsor of SB 273 and SB 519 in the  package, said that the legislation demonstrates through what he called “bold action” a commitment to creating a sustainable future that works equally for residents, communities, workers and the economy.

“We’re making sure that low income communities are being taken care of as well as part of the clean energy future,” he told the crowd. “We’re making sure that the Public Service Commission, led by our Chairman [Dan] Scripps, along with great commissioners, have the tools that they need to implement that clean energy future. And those bills that are part of this are an instrumental part of our future. At the same time, we worked with our friends in labor to ensure as we made the changes that were moving forward, that every worker was taken care of as part of this process.”

Not everyone has the same optimism of what the legislation will accomplish, as Republicans in both the House and Senate were vociferously opposed to the bills, citing concerns that the policies would raise energy costs, lower reliability and strip control over renewable energy projects from communities.

“Dark days are ahead for Michiganders under these backwards new laws that will prematurely ditch reliable natural gas power plants and require vastly more wind and solar,” said state Rep. Mike Harris (R-Waterford). “These heavy-handed laws will force people to hand more money to big utility companies while getting less reliable electricity and suffering more blackouts as a result. On top of all that, Michigan’s rural communities will be upended as the governor’s hand-picked bureaucrats veto local decisions and put wind and solar farms in any community they please. The utilities will rake in profits from this costly, unreliable scheme, but the families, schools, and small businesses of Michigan will pay the price — and many people will leave for brighter, more affordable states.”

Meanwhile, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition has expressed opposition to a key part of the package, SB 271, which requires energy companies to generate 60% of their energy from renewable sources by 2035 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.

The group says that the carveout for landfill gas, biomass, gas from a methane digester and its inclusion of incinerators and natural gas using carbon capture technology will disproportionately impact lower income communities.

“Governor Whitmer and her allies will try to spin the passage of SB271 as a victory for climate and environmental justice,” said Juan Jhong-Chung, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition Co-Executive Director.In reality, it is a disaster for everyone but DTE and Consumers Energy. There can be no climate win without environmental justice, and environmental justice communities who will bear the brunt of this dirty law were systematically excluded, dismissed and ignored during its drafting.”

Other environmental advocates, however, praised the legislation as a major step forward in addressing climate change.

Evergreen Action Midwest Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager Courtney Bourgoin said the 100% clean energy standard sets an example for industrial states across the country.

“Right now, unprecedented federal investment from the Inflation Reduction Act is available to states like Michigan to foster a prosperous clean energy economy while simultaneously lowering household energy costs and reducing harmful pollution,” she said. “By enacting these policies, Michigan has moved to unlock billions of that federal funding to help establish the state’s position as a national leader in clean energy jobs and manufacturing.”

Another piece of the legislation that has drawn criticism is HB 5120, which grants the MPSC final say on permits for large scale renewable energy projects — including solar energy developments with a capacity of 50 megawatts or more; wind facilities with 100 megawatts or more; and energy storage facilities with a capacity of 50 megawatts or more and a discharge capacity of 200 megawatts or greater.

While critics say the bill removes control over those types of projects from local governments, advocates note that it still requires energy companies to work with municipalities whose permitting process mirrors that of the state, giving the two parties 120 days to reach an agreement. They can also apply for an extension for another 120 days.

Electrical providers can submit a permitting application to the MPSC if the impacted community fails to approve or deny an application in a timely manner, if the local zoning process is stricter than the standards outlined in the bill, or if a project meets the standards outlined in the bill, but the application is denied.

One of those speaking at Tuesday’s ceremony in support of that change was Clara Ostrander of Milan Township in Monroe County, who owns and operates two Centennial farmsteads.

“Before my father passed away, he asked me to keep the farm in the family so it could be passed down to my son the same as he was passing it on to me,” she said. “Little did I know at the time what a hard task it would be to maintain two farmsteads over a hundred years old and keeping up with property taxes.”

Ostrander said renting the farm to another farmer for raising corn and soybeans, helped assist with paying the taxes, but it didn’t leave much more for helping with the maintenance on the rest of the farm.

“So when we were first approached about the idea of leasing our land for a large solar farm, we were very skeptical as we didn’t want to do anything to harm the farm,” she said. “But after several months of research, we learned that solar would not harm our land, but rather it would allow the land to rest while helping the environment by harvesting the sun for clean energy.”

However, Ostrander said the township’s interpretation of their solar ordinance prevented them from moving forward for two years, until ultimately the ordinance was amended to prevent her from leasing the land and “taking away our landowner rights.”

She said the bills allow small farmers like herself to now have the option to keep their family heritage and not have to resort to selling their land.

To that point, House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck), who sponsored HB 5120, said having that flexibility was critical to Michigan becoming a leader in green energy.

“We’re going to do it in a way that invests in communities that are low income,” he said. “We’re going to do it in a way that makes sure that we have a just transition for our workers. We’re going to do it in a way where our local communities and our farmers have input and agency in what they do with their land and their futures. And it is all possible because you helped deliver Democratic majorities in the Michigan House and the Michigan Senate.”

Just before sitting down to sign the legislation, Whitmer said the actions were not just about the immediate needs of Michiganders, but meeting those of future generations, as well.

“As Michiganders, we know we have a responsibility to face climate change head on, not only to make life better today, but to make sure life goes on centuries from now,” she said. “We do this work because we care about our future. We want to leave behind a better world for our kids. There’s an old Native American proverb that goes, ‘We do not inherit the burden from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’

“Back in early 2021, when I built the MI Healthy Climate Plan, I read two letters that I received from fourth graders named Lily and Maddie,” Whitmer continued. “They wrote about rising water levels and decreasing biodiversity. They urged us to take climate action. Well, I hope those fourth graders are now enjoying seventh grade and I hope they are proud.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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