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Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

How Michigan Set Itself on the Fast Track to Clean Energy

Evergreen interviewed Senator Sam Singh, the main sponsor of the climate package, and Angana Shah, an EJ organizer, to understand what’s in these bills and what comes next.

Michigan just put the “great” in the Great Lakes region once again: In November, the Michigan state legislature passed a package of nation-leading clean energy policies that boasts a 100 percent clean energy standard (CES) by 2040, legislation that will make it easier to build new wind and solar projects, and a directive to create a community and worker transition office within the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO).     

This marks a turning point for Michigan, which currently generates only 12 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and adds to growing momentum in the Midwest and across the U.S., as it joins its neighbors in Minnesota and Illinois in moving toward 100 percent clean, carbon-free energy

Blog Post Image - Whitmer speaking on day of bill signing

Governor Whitmer and Senator Singh on the day of the bill signing. Courtney Bourgoin/Evergreen Action

The path forward is a bold one—and one that will require a unified effort across lawmakers, communities, industry, and labor. Polling shows Michiganders resoundingly want a grid powered by clean energy, greater utility accountability, and affordable power. But currently, Michigan is the 10th most climate-polluting state nationally, and the state’s largest power companies DTE and Consumers rank worst for blackout durations and keep hiking up rates. Moreover, the Detroit tri-cities area has the highest rates of asthma nationwide, directly linked to the city’s polluting coal and gas-powered plants, where the toxic harms of air pollution disproportionately affect its predominantly Black and Latino residents. 

This context makes the current clean energy package all the more critical in changing the status quo—and there’s still a lot of work ahead to ensure that utilities are held accountable for their history of pollution, underperformance, and rate hikes and that power plants do not continue polluting in low-income neighborhoods or communities of color. 

 

Meet Our Guests

To better understand what’s in these bills, what it took to get them across the finish line, and where Michigan is going next, we spoke to Senator Sam Singh, the main sponsor of the legislation, and Angana Shah, a Michigan-based environmental justice organizer. Below is a transcript of those conversations, edited for brevity and clarity. We spoke to Sen. Singh and Angana separately for scheduling purposes.

Evergreen: Senator Singh, congratulations on your leadership getting this package of climate and clean energy bills across the finish line! Can you give us a recap of what’s in these bills and why this is such a big moment for Michigan and Michiganders? 

Sen. Sam Singh:

Sure! Well, there were four key bills to the Clean Energy Future package that we worked on over the last few months. The main bill moves Michigan towards 100 percent clean energy by 2040 with a commitment of at least 50 percent renewable by 2030.

The second bill, which I am really excited about, provides more tools for the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) on how they could regulate our utilities. Now, they can take into account health, equity, affordability, and climate considerations. This new set of requirements will shape better discussions around utility-integrated resource plans. 

We also expanded our energy efficiency programs by increasing the standard and expanding the types of technologies that could be used for energy efficiency. Also, for the first time, we required a minimum spend in low-income communities by utilities, so that more people  can have access to our energy efficiency programs. Throughout this process, there was a focus that all residents would benefit from this package.

And then our fourth bill of the package was focused on making sure that our workers and communities weren't left behind through any transition of the energy sector or the automotive sector. We created a Just Transition Office in our Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, which will be taking a look at what is necessary to ensure that workers stay competitive for jobs and that if there are transitions within an industry, there are retooling and educational opportunities, so workers aren’t left behind. 

If you look at all those pieces together, you can see a holistic approach to tackling climate. We aimed to pass a package that ensures strong grid reliability and affordability for Michigan residents, while still hitting very aggressive climate goals.

 

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Evergreen: So, you mentioned the centerpiece of this package—an ambitious 100 percent clean energy standard (CES) by 2040. For those less familiar with this target, can you share how a CES works and why it matters?

Sen. Singh:

Regulated utilities from the MPSC and other utilities like community co-ops and municipal utilities have to put together plans for those groups that regulate them on how they're going to move toward 100 percent clean energy. There are incremental goals, at least on the renewable energy side, that they all have to hit: 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and then 60 percent by 2035. After 2035, they must move towards 80 percent clean energy and then eventually 100 percent by 2040.

And so there are additional tools that could be utilized outside of wind and solar to hit some of these goals, but we do want to see as much reduction of fossil fuels out of the mix as well as as much carbon reduction as possible as we move through this process.

One of the things that we did throughout the process is we relied on modeling. Some of that came to us from outside organizations and advocates, but we also relied on our Public Service Commission to take a look at modeling. We wanted to ensure that as we have these aggressive goals, they could be met realistically and affordably and didn't create a cost burden on our residents.

That modeling helped us make accurate decisions and counter any kind of complaints from groups claiming that it wasn’t feasible or it was going to impact grid reliability. 

Blog Post Image - MI Modelling #s

Michigan Senator Stephanie Chang speaking about the benefits of passing clean energy legislation. Courtney Bourgoin/Evergreen Action

Evergreen: For other states looking to follow Michigan’s lead, can you take us behind the scenes—what tactics were key to your success and what challenges did you experience along the way?

Sen. Singh:

I think our success in achieving this very aggressive package on climate was thanks to the coalitions that have formed over the last decade in Michigan and their work shaping the narrative going into this session. There were organizations that had been talking about these types of issues that represented the environmental community, health advocates, clean energy businesses, and frontline communities. They helped validate the bills once they were introduced in the spring and were key partners in the negotiations that occurred. 

Obviously, labor in a state like Michigan was a critical component of the conversations. They had not always focused on climate issues significantly a decade ago, but they were very involved in this set of negotiations and a really good partner. We ended up with some of the strongest worker protections, and having those relationships and credibility with groups working in this space for a decade was a huge plus.

We also had a governor who had introduced, through executive order, the MI Healthy Climate Plan, which outlined a vision of where we could go. And so a lot of the initial parts of the bills that we introduced were codifications of that plan. We had at least a blueprint on where to go, and in many instances, we went further than what the governor had put forward. Knowing a lot of work had already been done by the administration as well as key stakeholders really allowed us to focus on the policy and how to make the bills as strong as possible. 

Now, to the second part of your question—some of the challenges. Those of us who were focused on clean energy understood early on that our Republican colleagues were not going to participate with us on this package. We were obviously disappointed with that, but we then knew that we had to sort of work within our own caucuses, in the Senate as well as in the House. So, even though it was all Democrats within each of those chambers as we had those negotiations, it was a fairly diverse set of individuals, who represent very diverse districts. And so it was a very complicated process to make sure that everyone—from officials to stakeholders to the administration to the MPSC—was comfortable as we went through the negotiations. 

But, I was really pleased that we had a fairly aggressive plan and were able to meet the needs of individual legislators throughout the state.

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Evergreen: So, we’ve talked about the nitty-gritty of the bills and the negotiation process. Angana, can you share what this package of bills will mean practically for Michiganders?

Angana Shah:

The legislation sets a target of 100 percent clean energy by 2040. That sounds so revolutionary, and it is! It's definitely an improvement, but clean energy here also includes natural gas if carbon capture is used and it grandfathers in existing nuclear. 

Marginalized and vulnerable communities disproportionately suffer from the effects of pollution, have higher cancer rates, more asthma, and often the highest bills because they have the least efficient delivery of power—it’s basically utility redlining. Historically, they’ve been less successful in keeping those plants and polluting structures away from their communities, and environmental justice advocates will continue to advocate to ensure they see equitable benefits from these bills. 

In addition to closing the coal-fired Monroe Power Plant, coal will be phased out, leading to cleaner air in the communities near coal plants, and if the utilities commit to renewables and cut pollution, the air will be cleaner, leading to fewer health problems such as asthma, cancer, reproductive issues, and other ailments in the next generation.

The emphasis on energy waste reduction, which translates into home weatherization assistance for low-income households, will help those families that receive the help to reduce their energy consumption, utility bills, and possibly home pollution on an individual level.  

The raise in the cap on rooftop solar installations from 1 percent to about 9 percent—also known as distributed generation—means more homeowners can take advantage of savings from solar energy and potentially strengthen the grid by creating more points of generation and transmission. And federal incentives will allow the benefits to reach lower- and middle-income homes. 

As solar spreads and people see its effects, it may expand rapidly, bringing more vendors and industry into Michigan. Currently, solar is mistakenly considered a luxury good, despite falling costs, and the fact that storage helps cover periods of low wind and sun is not understood. By allowing more solar to be installed, renewables may be more widely embraced.

Blog Post Image - MI Lobbying Day of Action

Climate rally during the MI Clean Energy Future Day of Action. Em Halvorson/Evergreen Action

Evergreen: Alongside the siting and clean energy packages, we were excited to see a bill pass that would establish a Just Transition Office in Michigan. Can you talk about what this package means for job growth and labor unions in Michigan when it comes to the clean energy transition?

Shah:

The Just Transition Office was set up to help people working on gas and coal plants that have high union employment transition into the clean energy economy. What we hope that the office will do is help workers not lose their livelihoods, and it’ll all come down to implementation. 

There were provisions in the law for prevailing wage for contracts that workers are entered into that will build new facilities and some labor protections. When people are represented by a union, they make a better living, have better healthcare, and have a body that can bargain for them. This has been a big challenge with battery plants and an issue that came up in the recent UAW strikes. Many of the coal and gas plant workers are unionized, so it’s on the Just Transition Office to help workers get similar benefits, so they are incentivized to transition into clean energy jobs.

Sen. Singh:

When we were working on this part of the bill, we looked at other states that have created Just Transition Offices, like Illinois and Colorado, and as we were having conversations, we knew that it had to go beyond just the energy sector.

We are seeing a significant transition in our automobile sector. Michigan, as you probably know, is an automobile state, and we are seeing a shift toward electric vehicles within the industry as a whole, in the state, nationally, and globally. 

So, first, we wanted to ensure that we were working with the business community to understand the different job skills that might be necessary and then use our federal resources for workforce development. We asked ourselves: How do we help workers develop skills that are necessary to transition into the new jobs? The great part of all of this is that over the past few years, Michigan has had a pretty robust green energy boom, and right now we're already leading the Midwest in green energy jobs.

We did work on the siting bills to make sure that at least certain-sized developments have strong labor protections. We can help ensure that the companies coming into Michigan or those that want to expand in Michigan are looking at prevailing wage and considering working with union labor where appropriate. 

On top of having a Just Transition Office, we also had some strong worker protections placed in the bills themselves. I was pleased to see a lot of green energy companies come to the table, as part of the negotiations, to talk about how they could work better with labor. These were, in my mind, some of the most meaningful conversations of the past year. 

So, my hope is that this will be an ongoing conversation, and the relationship will grow in years to come. Some of this will of course be organic, but we also wanted to ensure that, where appropriate, especially on large-scale utility-level projects, there were very strong labor protections included in the bill. My hope is that you'll see even with the small mom-and-pop solar developers (that are focused on household solar) ensuring that they're getting to the right prevailing wage. The same goes for the energy efficiency programs.

 

Evergreen: In the negotiations to get this package of bills across the finish line, not everything legislators and advocates wanted made it into the bills. The final version of the package came with a few tough compromises, largely due to the influence of big investor-owned utilities like DTE and Consumers. Can you share what must come next and how we can hold utilities accountable, especially to the needs of historically marginalized communities?

Shah:

What needs to be done is to break the power and narrative of the utilities and the overall protection of corporate "rights" at the expense of the life, property, and public health of everyone else. The narrative that we are servants of the economy, rather than a good economy being one that serves us, all of us, needs to be reversed. And MPSC needs to become a true public servant, accountable to the public, more so than to the utilities. Utility profits cannot be sacrosanct while customers continue to suffer from outages and budget-busting rate increases. 

So, what does this look like more concretely and immediately? Federal programs have taken steps to help states and communities access modern technology for cleaner air and water. One simple measure is to make sure air quality is measured, particularly in vulnerable communities, to accurately direct resources, find solutions, and ensure they are working.

Next, there are funds available at the federal level that need to get into the hands of communities. State, local, territory, and Tribal government entities are eligible for grants that may be used for improvements to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, manage stormwater run-off, address urban heat islands, and monitor air quality, transportation-related greenhouse gas pollution, and gaps in tree canopy coverage. 

Michigan laws need to allow for the full array of rooftop solar (not just 10 percent), distributed generation, and community solar (currently not allowed due to law), for which federal funding has been set aside, but the funds should be used to the greatest extent possible. Infrastructure can be improved to become less polluting, safer, and more effective with the funds allocated. Advocates can bring the funds to their communities and individual households through awareness-building and partnering with local government to design projects and apply for the funds.  

On the larger scale, the utility scale of generation, the environmental justice and climate community will need to insist on holding the utilities to the commitments in the law and fight them when they try to fall back on fossil fuels. They can work to hold MPSC and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) accountable for decisions that are environmentally responsible and give greater weight to the public and community as stakeholders than to the privileged utilities. Moving forward, MPSC will have more public meetings, and they should consider environmental justice for vulnerable communities as a factor in decision-making. 

Evergreen: Thank you both for your efforts in getting Michigan to this historic moment and for the work ahead—ensuring affordability, utility accountability, and environmental justice concerns remain a priority.

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