As the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder work to revamp Michigan’s 2008 energy law, a large chunk of the debate is about what percent of its energy supply should come from renewable sources. The current renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requires that electric utilities reach 10 percent by 2015.

In May, various stakeholders gave voice to the RPS subject before the House Energy Policy Committee, chaired by Rep. Aric Nesbitt.

Environmental groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called for a “30 percent by 2030” plan, Democrats support “20 percent by 2022”, and Snyder has called for “between 30 and 40 percent by 2025” in his 2015 energy plan. Michigan electric co-ops have yet another viewpoint.

Michigan utilities have met the current 10 percent goal, but want to see the RPS mandate replaced by policies that give utilities the flexibility to work renewables and energy efficiency programs into their long-term planning – referred to as an “integrated resource plan” (IRP) that would be overseen by state regulators.

The UCS, and many other environmental groups, fear that utilities won’t be as aggressive in pursuing renewable energy under an IRP-only system unless the state sets goals. “While the proposed IRP process can be a great compliment to an RES, it will not be as effective at driving investments in Michigan’s renewable energy resources or ensuring Michigan consumers realize a truly diverse, cleaner, lower-risk and more sustainable energy future,” testified Sam Gomberg, an analyst for UCS Midwest. To supply 30 percent of Michigan’s energy demand from wind turbines only, 5 percent of its farmland would need to host a wind farm, leaving 98 percent of the land on those farms still open for farming. Additionally, the state could meet 25 percent of its energy demand with solar panels on rooftops and solar farms on brownfields, Gomberg added.

However, Craig Borr, CEO of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association (MECA), said its “almost irrelevant” for the state to continue setting its own RPS levels since federal regulations on greenhouse gas limitations are steering utilities to renewables anyway.

Electric co-ops are already “well north” of getting 20 percent of their supply from renewables and will likely drive that percentage higher, Borr said. He also told the Committee that lawmakers need to consider that communities like Huron County – Michigan’s center of wind energy production – are putting moratoriums on new wind projects due to zoning concerns and other setbacks.

For the whole state to reach an RPS of 30 percent by 2030 would mean “thousands of new wind turbines” from the 300 that exist today, so cost may be an issue, especially if the options for turbine
placements become limited, Borr countered.

Further, setting a state RPS could limit the credit Michigan should receive if wind energy is imported from other areas. If utilities can save money from buying wind energy from Minnesota or Indiana as opposed to building its own wind farm, shouldn’t that count toward a hypothetical RPS?, Borr asked.

Eric Baker, CEO of Wolverine Power Cooperative, also testified before the Committee, noting that lack of a robust transmission connection between the peninsulas is the crux of the U.P.’s reliability problems and the weak transmission network in the eastern U.P. frustrates the development of renewables in the area. “Michigan’s citizens are paying millions of dollars annually in hidden taxes without this robust transmission connection,” he said.

Neither of Michigan’s largest utilities – DTE and Consumers Energy – requested to speak at the hearing. Instead, a group they both belong to – Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future – issued a press release noting the companies have tripled the state’s renewable generation portfolio since 2008 and should be given the flexibility of charting the state’s next course on the issue. Group spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney said the companies have spent billions on wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power projects, and their drive to add renewable sources continues. “With a looming capacity shortfall, reliable and affordable power must be Michigan’s priorities in the 2015 energy policy. Establishing an adaptable renewable goal will ensure the utilities use the most cost-effective renewable sources without sacrificing reliability or affordability.”