In recent years, several U.S. states have made progressive climate action a cornerstone of their long-term policy doctrine. Examples include California, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington, among a few others. Largely spurred by greenhouse gas reduction targets laid out in the Paris Agreement and multiple warning signs in the form of record-shattering wildfires and other climate disasters, these states have passed new laws, enacted tax incentives, and revised building and energy codes on a mandate of public welfare.
Another thing those states have in common is that politically speaking, each one is safely blue, at least for the foreseeable future. That trend was bucked in part with the recent passing of a package of climate bills in Michigan, a state with a Democrat-run State House but one that is consistently up for grabs each election cycle.
On November 28, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a collection of four climate bills aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions statewide and transitioning to a clean energy economy. This includes getting the state’s electricity grid to run on 100% renewable, clean energy by 2040; making the accessibility and deployment of rooftop solar across commercial, residential, and government buildings a priority; and increasing capacity for energy storage to support all that new renewable energy production. Those are the broad strokes, all of which are typical of other states’ ambitious climate agendas. What makes Michigan stand out is its economy.
The issues surrounding climate science and global warming can get overwhelming, and when confronted with some harsh truths, people often feel like they can’t see the forest through the trees. It helps to frame the issue as a simple apples-to-apples equation: the global climate crisis is, in fact, in the words of California Governor Gavin Newsom, “a fossil fuel crisis.” And for a place like Michigan, where the heart of America’s automobile industry has been beating for over a century, making fossil fuels the bogeyman is a risky proposition.
Michiganders own and drive cars, lots and lots of cars. According to an independent study conducted by insurance company Jerry, state residents own more cars per capita than any other state. And sustaining all that mobility and manufacturing is a lot of refined petroleum, coal, natural gas, and oil. (According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Michigan ranks among the top 5 states in residential sector petroleum ruse and ranks first in residential consumption of propane.)
Currently, renewable wind, solar, hydroelectric, and biomass-generated electricity makes up a combined 11.1% of Michigan’s energy mix. (Coal and natural gas combine for nearly 64%.) One law in the new climate package rewrites Michigan’s renewable portfolio standard to require at least 60% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources, with the other 40% from a combination of nuclear power (which currently accounts for 22% statewide) and natural gas with carbon capture. So, proposing to transition the state’s economy to 100% clean, carbon-free electricity in less than two decades is quite ambitious, to say the least.
Aiding in that effort is another law in the package that creates a public service commission (in place of the newly abolished Michigan Public Utilities Commission) that will have regulatory oversight over public utilities and certain private utilities. This oversight extends to considering climate and reliability concerns while planning the state’s electricity grid, while also making certain concessions for “alternative” energy suppliers.
Abiding by the state’s 2040 targets and beyond will require robust investments in converting and upgrading the grid, the manufacturing of electric vehicles (EVs), and research and development devoted to developing new and better battery technologies. In turn, it will also require unprecedented investments in job creation and training for advanced energy and construction jobs as well as auto workers.
As outlined, Michigan’s new climate laws estimate that they will result in the creation of 160,000 jobs, introduce $8 billion in federal tax dollars for clean electricity projects and home electrification and efficiency upgrades, save households an average of $145 annually in energy costs, and implement the state’s Healthy Climate Plan.
The latter is aimed at reducing GHG emissions en route to realizing economy-wide carbon neutrality. Making the climate plan a reality will mean abiding by the Michigan Clean Energy Framework, an independent modeling report released by 5 Lakes Energy earlier this year. That framework outlines a series of policies on which the state’s new climate laws are built. Once more, the broad strokes touch on clean electricity, energy waste reduction, electrification of the building and transportation sectors, and industrial decarbonization.
Another key law in the climate package sets new energy efficiency requirements for the state’s power and gas utilities. Now, utility providers must spend at least 25% of those funds earmarked for efficiencies on low-income communities. Further, utilities are encouraged to pursue home electrification by introducing induction stoves and heat pumps.
Of course, getting to a clean energy economy means having to account for hiccups in the labor market, and ensuring those working in fields that rely purely on the procurement, delivery, and combustion of fossil fuels aren’t left out in the cold. The final law in Michigan’s comprehensive climate package establishes a Just Transition Office within the state’s labor and economic development office. This new office will play a key advisory role as it pertains to training and/or re-training workers and communities that might otherwise be economically impacted by statewide decarbonization initiatives.
Governor Whitmer’s office estimates that in transitioning to a carbon-free energy sector will prevent 1,000 premature deaths and save the state more than $8 billion in public health costs. The state’s power grid is notoriously unreliable. And despite ongoing (and largely successful) efforts to improve quality of life and boost economic investment throughout Detroit, the state’s largest city and metro area, the city still records some of the worst air quality in the country.
Weening humankind off fossil fuels across all industries and sectors is the defining concern of this era. Improving energy efficiency within the building and transportation sectors improves safety and protects consumers’ wallets. A clean energy economy translates to cleaner air and longer lives. If all this and more can be achieved in a swing state, then it sends a clear message to civic leaders and policy wonks across the political spectrum that aggressive climate action is not up for partisan debate; it’s simply a matter of public interest.