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Published in Energy

Q&A: Liesl Clark Director, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy

BY Sunday, October 11, 2020 03:32pm

On Sept. 23, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a target for Michigan to be carbon neutral by 2050. While that’s certainly a lofty goal, questions remain over what hitting the target will actually mean in practice. Over the next year, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) will submit a MI Healthy Climate Plan to Whitmer that essentially acts as a roadmap. It will begin to detail ways the state and private sector — including utilities and industrial and commercial entities — can start chipping away at the carbon reduction goal while also outlining strategies for offsetting carbon emissions. Whitmer’s announcement made Michigan the fifth state with a long-term carbon neutral target, and the first in the Midwest. EGLE Director Liesl Clark recently spoke with MiBiz to discuss the climate goal and the pandemic’s effect on the clean energy sector.

What are the next steps in the MI Healthy Climate plan?

We’ve been doing an inventory in state government and understanding what we affect as the state. We’ve also been doing a lot of modeling. By Nov. 1, we’ve asked applicants to file information with the governor’s appointment office. The governor will then be appointing the climate solutions council by the end of the year. They’ll meet in early 2021, and that group will advise EGLE on the plan.

Liesl Clark Director of EGLE COURTESY PHOTO

Major utilities in Michigan have been outspoken on clean energy and carbon reduction plans that have similar targets the state announced. How should other sectors — private-sector industries and transportation — be thinking about this goal?

Mobility is a huge component of this. In the U.S., mobility surpassed power generation as the largest carbon emitter, and in Michigan power generation is still the largest. Since we are home to the advanced mobility sector and we’re leaders in innovation, and frankly we sell to the globe, our industry is uniquely positioned to be pivotal in moving forward climate solutions. 

Industry has also been a leader in the state as well. Certainly, the automakers to folks like Steelcase and Herman Miller — none of this is new to them. They’ve been doing this type of sustainability work for quite some time.

Industry and mobility are a component of it, and local communities are a component of it. There’s a lot of work that’s happening at the local level across Michigan right now and we want to raise that work up and connect the communities that are interested and see it as an opportunity but aren’t quite sure what their next steps are. They’re more likely to see positive outcomes when they see communities like them taking similar action.

What does this mean for companies that haven’t set sustainability goals, and will the state take action to offset private sector emissions?

How the pieces fit together remain to be seen. We’re really interested in input. This is not something that will be a top-down mandate. The solutions will come bottom-up. I suspect there’s a lot of creative solutions across the state. I suspect a lot of those manufacturers are already purchasing power, so there are solutions just from the fact that utilities are setting some of the goals they’re setting. There will absolutely have to be additional thought, input and advice given in order to get us there. I think there are going to be a lot of different solutions coming together — we’ll have to knit them together to come up with a plan.

The Energy Transition Impact Project aspect of this involves the Department of Treasury. Is this component about preparing communities for the potential revenue loss in cases where power plants are closing?

Treasury thinks a lot about what the future holds for locals based on their tax structure and what’s going on in that local community. They had already been doing regular work trying to anticipate what sort of changes in tax structure this would cause in communities. It made sense for them to draw those pieces together and put an energy lens on it so they’re thinking about how the state could be most supportive through these transitions.

There’s a flip side to that too, which is working communities through siting challenges. There are huge opportunities for local investment through the building of energy that we are going to need to keep moving us forward. That’s a great opportunity for communities to see initial investments.

Thinking more short term, how does a plan like this help regain clean energy sector jobs that have been lost during the pandemic?

Great question for two reasons. One is because we’ve seen a hit there with COVID. Second, all of the energy transition work we have to do has an economic lens around it. What we’ve seen because of the increasing changes in the renewables market and cost decreases in those energy sources is a huge opportunity for the state. It’s figuring out how to harness that opportunity so we’re building a Michigan that attracts the type of businesses that want to take advantage of a more diverse and sustainable energy portfolio. 

Another component is that this work is reflected in all communities — we want to make sure it’s a just transition at the same time. There’s a lot of aspects to it, and that economic lens is an important one as we find the path going forward.

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