Many claims have been made by the supporters and opponents of Proposal 3, the “25×25” renewable energy initiative, and the truth isn’t always clear. What is clear to us is that specific policy directives like those contained in Proposal 3 don’t belong in the state constitution, and that is more than enough reason for us to urge readers to vote “no” on the initiative.
Proposal 3 would add a provision to the constitution requiring that all utilities in the state get at least 25 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2025. Currently, state law mandates that utilities generate or purchase 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Raising that standard to 25 percent is a worthy goal and would reduce the use of coal and natural gas, with all the environmental baggage they carry. However, experience shows that generating renewable energy is more than a matter of just finding a windy spot and sticking a turbine in the ground.
Note the experience of the Holland Board of Public Works, which has seen two major wind projects fail to measure up to economic analysis. Given the realities of Michigan’s climate and geography, wind power would likely account for the lion’s share of new renewable energy. But battles throughout the state have shown that neighbors frequently object to wind turbines, often strenuously; further, the best wind power sites are usually far from customers. The best winds in Michigan blow offshore, but we expect something very smelly would hit the fan from a serious effort to locate wind farms in Lake Michigan.
Opponents of Proposal 3 claim that utilities would have to build more than 3,000 new wind turbines at a cost of up to $12 billion to meet the 25×25 requirement. The truth is, while there would be a significant cost, no one can accurately say what it would be. Renewable energy technologies are improving and new projects are more cost-competitive; however, a generous federal tax credit for wind power generation is also set to expire this year. No one can really make reliable forecasts on what it will cost to generate power from conventional or renewable sources in 2025. The one thing we can safely predict is this: Investing in renewable energy won’t eliminate the need for utilities to develop new conventional electricity sources. As we’ve said over and over in relation to our local energy debate, wind and solar are intermittent forces that can’t serve as “baseload” power sources available 24/7. Proposal 3 includes a provision limiting rate increases for power from renewable sources to 1 percent a year and extends deadlines in such cases. But ratepayers will still have to shoulder the cost of building new power plants or refurbishing old ones on top of whatever they pay to develop renewable sources.
What decisively tips the argument against Proposal 3 for us is not economics but civics. Our state constitution is supposed to provide a broad framework for government operations, not determine specific policies; we give state government the power to regulate traffic, but we don’t write speed limits into the constitution.
Complex issues like renewable energy should be dealt with through normal legislative channels, where all the parties can have their say, compromises made and amendments approved as times and conditions change. Writing energy law into the constitution ensures that it can only be changed with another constitutional amendment, another expensive campaign and another all-or-nothing, no-compromise ballot initiative. Twenty-nine states have established renewable energy standards, but even those that have done so via the ballot haven’t made them part of their constitutions.
We supported the 10 percent renewable standard in 2008, and it appears that Michigan utilities are well on their way to meeting it without undue economic burden. We support raising the standard, but that should be done through the Legislature, not by locking a controversial policy into the state constitution.