GRAND RAPIDS — The debate over Michigan’s energy future remains a charged discussion.
On the one hand, proponents of more renewable and alternative energy say the state cannot afford to wait to raise its renewable portfolio standard. They point to the declining cost of renewable energy in comparison to traditional sources of power as evidence that the state will not lose by pushing for more alternative energy resources to be deployed in the state.
Waiting to do so could cost the state jobs and millions in investment, they say.
But not everyone buys the argument. Skeptics and some business groups say the state needs to be absolutely sure that its energy policy is harmless to ratepayers and businesses already creating jobs in the state.
Most people seem to agree that the state needs a range of energy sources, but they’re not so sure mandating that utilities use a higher percentage of renewable energy is the right way to go.
Stakeholders from both camps joined in the second of seven Michigan Energy Policy Forum events, held last week at Grand Valley State University’s Loosemoore Auditorium in downtown Grand Rapids.
An audience that packed the auditorium listened to presentations suggesting what energy questions need to be asked right now and after Michigan meets its 10 percent renewable portfolio standard in 2015.
“It’s not about asking what the targets should be or what our policies should be or if we should even have targets in theses specific areas,” said Steve Bakkal, director of the Michigan Energy Office. “What we’re looking for are the underlying facts that policy makers and the governor can use to make those kinds of policy recommendations.”
One fact former State Rep. Dan Scripps says he can’t ignore is the economic impact renewable energy has had on the state and global economy.
Scripps, the president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, said advanced energy is a growing, robust industry with an estimated impact of $1.1 trillion on the global market. Additionally, global revenues from advanced energy installations last year topped $200 billion, he said. That number is expected to grow to between to $300 billion and $350 billion by 2018, he said.
“Advanced energy manufacturing alone … provides $4.9 billion in economic impact, and that’s just in manufacturing,” Scripps said of the industry in Michigan. “It also doesn’t include energy efficiency manufacturing, which adds $2.3 billion in annual impact by 2015.”
For example, a recent study by The Right Place Inc. of West Michigan’s alternative energy manufacturing sector found more than 700 local companies could produce parts for wind turbines.
To capitalize on the economic opportunity for those companies in renewable energy, the state needs to continue to drive more investment, Scripps and other supporters said.
Among the supporters of more renewable energy is former Republican State Senator Patty Birkholz, who helped draft the bill that formed the foundation of the state’s existing RPS.
In addition to proactively avoiding the public health costs of relying on fossil fuels, Birkholz said the state needs to support more renewables and increased efforts in energy efficiency from an economic development standpoint. If the state ignores those opportunities, it could lose out on the benefits to the state’s industrial base, as well as the jobs derived from manufacturing and maintaining renewable energy systems.
“We can’t defer the activity,” Birkholz said. “We have to increase renewables and efficiency or we know the market will dry up. These people will move and the jobs will be lost and companies will leave.”
Birkholz cited the falling cost of wind energy as well as the bottom line financial impact of energy efficiency as areas to focus on moving forward.
“Controlling costs is very important. Some people forget the fact that as ratepayers, we pay to build plants, to decommission plants, we pay to upgrade plants and, all the time, we are paying our electrical bills,” she said.
The statewide discussions on energy, called for by Gov. Rick Snyder in a special message on energy, come as the deadline for Michigan utilities to generate 10 percent of their energy from alternative or renewable energy sources looms just two years away.
So far, the state’s utilities are well on their way to meeting the requirements, according to a report from Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman John Quackenbush. The report found the state is exceeding the yearly energy efficiency and renewable energy targets it has tracked since 2009.
“We feel pretty good about what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Quackenbush said. “We’re on our way. We’ve built a lot of renewables in 2012. With everything on track by 2015, we expect to meet the target of 10 percent (RPS).”
While the state is on track, supporters don’t want to lose that momentum and start all over again. Scripps noted that it took utilities several years to ramp up renewable energy production after the existing RPS passed.
“What I’m curious about is what happens in 2015 and if we wait until 2015 to move,” he said. “Do we have the same three-year ramp-up period where again we see economic activity fall off?”
Birkholz called on state legislators to again hammer out their differences and pass the next phase of RPS legislation for the state.
“A lot of hard compromises were made,” she said of the process to pass the current RPS. The question legislators in Lansing need to ask themselves is whether “we want to stop being successful or do we want to do more,” she said.