Michigan Dems plan climate push

Fresh off winning majorities in both the state House and Senate, Michigan Democrats are planning some of the nation’s most aggressive efforts to combat climate change.
Michigan state Sen. Winnie Brinks (D) stands before reporters in the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, minutes after Senate Democrats voted to make her the chamber’s first female leader. (Joey Cappelletti/Report for America via AP)

Fresh off winning majorities in both the state House and Senate, Michigan Democrats are planning some of the nation’s most aggressive efforts to combat climate change.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), newly elected to a second term, and the legislative Democrats who will now make up the majority of the state legislature plan efforts to put the state on a path to become carbon neutral by 2050 while ramping up adoption of electric vehicles in the heart of the American auto industry.

State Sen. Winnie Brinks (D), who will become the leader of the upper chamber when Democrats formally take control next year, cautioned that the path to enacting climate priorities will be difficult, in part because Democrats are out of practice. The last time Democrats held the majority in the legislature was 40 years ago. 

“We’re building our muscles here to run the entire institution,” Brinks said. “I’m not under any illusion that there won’t be some bumps in the road.”

Michigan is one of the ten states that emits the most carbon dioxide in the entire nation, according to the Energy Information Administration. Whitmer, frequently mentioned as a possible presidential contender, has been pushing to advance climate measures even before she had a Democratic legislature to work with.

In April, Whitmer released a climate plan that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and by 52% by 2030, before going carbon-neutral in 2050, largely by increasing wind and solar power. 

The plan called for generating 60% of electricity from renewable sources by 2030; building electric-vehicle charging infrastructure necessary to support two million electric vehicles by 2030; increasing access to clean transportation options, including public transit, by 15% each year; and cutting emissions related to heating homes and businesses 17% by 2030. 

Brinks said the Senate would use Whitmer’s proposals last year as a starting point.

Brinks said she had talked with Whitmer “briefly” on climate issues, but preliminary discussions about bills to prioritize are still in the beginning stages. Brinks said that climate issues would also be among her party’s top priorities in the budget, including funding for electric vehicle infrastructure, but she stressed that it was too early to tell which priorities would get money. 

“I wouldn’t know the specific line items or which budget at this point,” Brinks said when asked what climate priorities could be financed by the legislature.

The legislature typically passes the budget by the end of July, the state’s statutory deadline for getting a budget done. 

Climate policy “certainly has big implications for our budget conversations, and those are already under way,” Brinks said.

Whitmer’s goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions would be among the most aggressive in any state. 

Only five states currently have set a statutory goal of net-zero emissions: Hawaii, Virginia, Washington, New York and Vermont. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii’s law requires carbon neutrality in 2045, Virginia’s law requires a net-zero economy by 2045, and New York and Washington’s law requires a net-zero economy by 2050. Vermont passed legislation in 2020 that would cut emissions to net zero by 2050.

“We’re at a moment in history where we need to set ambitious goals, or we risk dire consequences,” Brinks said.  

Increasing wind and solar energy production will also be part of the mix to meet the ambitious greenhouse gas cuts, but the legislature may need to step in to ensure it happens. 

One issue has to do with siting the projects. Currently, townships and local officials control the process for deciding where major wind or solar projects will be built. 

Opposition to large-scale renewable energy projects has grown in recent years, even resulting in the recall of some Michigan township trustees who have backed projects. 

Environmental advocates have called for the state to control the process more. 

“We need some guard … at the state level … that facilitates renewable energy projects going forward while still accounting for some community’s concerns,” said Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council. 

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D), who helped introduce climate legislation in 2021, acknowledged Michigan has a history of local control. Any effort to change Michigan’s mixture of energy sources would not take away the local ability to have a say. He said that the issue boils down to allowing people who want to participate in wind or solar generation to use their land to do so. 

“There should be some limits as to how much their neighbors can prevent them from realizing the economic utility of their land,” Irwin said. “I think that’s where the conversation has to take place.” 

Irwin also said that Democrats want to remove an effective cap on rooftop solar, which could get traction in the new majority after past efforts failed.

Under a law passed in 2016, Michiganders who install rooftop solar are able to sell the energy they generate back through the grid to utility companies. But the law caps such solar distributed energy at 1% of each utility company’s peak load averaged out over the past five years. 

That means that out of the highest amount of energy that a utility company needs to meet demand for its customers, no more than 1% of that energy can come from customer-generated clean energy. 

Some utilities have reached the cap, and others will soon. Rooftop solar projects installed after the cap is hit would not likely get the benefit. 

That was “clearly done to benefit the investors of privately owned utilities,” Irwin said, adding, “that will definitely be on the table.”

This story was updated on Dec. 29, 2022, at 11:30 A.M. EST to note that Vermont also has a statutory net-zero green house gas emissions target. The state was not among those listed by the National Conference of State Legislatures.