The Michigan Legislature voted Wednesday to empower a state commission to preempt local governments’ decisions on whether to authorize solar and wind projects, moving bills to overhaul energy laws to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for her likely signature.
The Senate voted 20-18, along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition of legislation that would let the three-member Michigan Public Service Commission decide where large-scale solar parks and wind turbines are constructed. Currently, the authority rests with local government officials through county and township zoning and permitting policies.
The Democratic-controlled House approved the Senate’s changes to the bill Wednesday evening along party lines.
Both sides of the debate in the Senate described the legislation as a crossroads for Michigan. Proponents said action was needed to address climate change, while opponents countered that the measure could alter the future of agriculture in the state by dedicating more acreage to energy production.
“This is a critical component of achieving our bold clean energy goals,” Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, said before the Senate approved the bills on solar and wind projects permitting.
Another set of pending bills in Lansing would impose a 100% clean energy standard for utilities to hit by 2040. The main proposal passed the House and Senate previously and was sent to the Democratic governor Wednesday.
Whitmer in a Wednesday statement said the legislation would make the state a “national leader on clean energy.”
“People want to know that they can start a family, career, or business in a state that will provide them with strong economic opportunities and fight for their children’s future,” Whitmer said. “Today we are protecting everything we know and love about pure Michigan.”
Advocates have said changing which level of government can permit the projects is necessary to ensure the state can hit the new requirements for clean and renewable energy that are making their way through the Democrat-controlled state Legislature.
The supporters have also contended the bills would protect property rights by ensuring neighbors can’t use political means to block a farmer who has agreed to use his land for a development – a trend that’s been playing out in townships across Michigan.
But opponents, including Sen. John Damoose R-Harbor Springs, described the Democratic measures as a bid to circumvent local control in rural, agricultural areas, pushed by lawmakers from urban areas.
“We are passing a law here that strips any reasonable local control over new facilities that can dramatically change communities for generations to come,” Damoose said.
The bills were about taking away local control over zoning, argued state Sen. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell. Albert predicted that “picturesque” landscapes in Michigan would be turned into “monstrous” hellscapes.
The bills point to the political pickle clean energy advocates have found themselves in. They want more energy through renewable resources like wind and solar, but it’s been difficult to get local approval for large-scale projects to produce the energy.
Opponents of the projects have focused on the facilities’ appearance and said they would diminish prime farmland. They’ve successfully recalled local officials who supported solar developments.
But Dan Scripps, the chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission, said Tuesday that Michigan might need about 209,000 additional acres of land for wind and solar power generation in order to achieve the proposed goal of getting 60% of its energy from renewable sources by 2035.
Michigan currently has about 17,000 acres already producing wind and solar power, officials said.
The 60% renewable standard is in the same pending bill as the 100% clean energy standard.
Testifying before the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, Scripps said the acreage needed to reach the proposed goals, which he described as high-end estimates, represented about 0.55% of the land in Michigan.
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