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Wind, solar siting bills draw Republican backlash

Wind Turbines in the Great Lakes
D. O'Keefe
Wind Turbines in the Great Lakes

New legislation in the Michigan House of Representatives would give state regulators, rather than local officials, the power to approve zoning for certain wind and solar energy projects.

The bill package is part of a broader push to boost renewable energy in Michigan while cutting the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

It received a hearing before the House Energy, Communications, and Technology Committee last week.

Under the legislation, the Michigan Public Service Commission would gain authority to pre-empt local governments and zoning ordinances.

Chair Dan Scripps told the committee his commission already has authority to site other types of energy infrastructure, like natural gas and petroleum pipelines.

Scripps said solar and wind shouldn’t be treated any differently.

“It doesn’t make sense and we don’t follow this approach in any other aspect of Michigan’s energy infrastructure,” he said.

But the idea of overruling local government control faced pushback from both Republican lawmakers and local government organizations.

Judy Allen is with the Michigan Townships Association. She said the bills would disregard community desires.

“These decisions on the location for the renewable facilities create a lasting change for a community, for their future development, for their businesses, for their farmland. And this is all for a minimum of 25 to 50 years. So, it should not be taken lightly,” Allen said.

During and after the meeting, Representative Jaime Greene (R-Richmond) echoed that sentiment.

She said permitting questions have already gone on the ballot in many rural communities.

“And they’re being turned down by an overwhelmingly amount. But then, here we are. The state coming in, and really it’s like a hostile takeover, usurping their authority—not just the elected officials but then also the people who voted on these things,” Greene told Michigan Public Radio.

When it came to the question of shouldering the burden of the state’s energy portfolio, supporters indicated a willingness to find common ground and work with communities.

As written, the bills would require project applicants to enter agreements with at least one community-based organization, like a local government.

During the hearing, a sponsor mentioned individuals in urban communities around the state have had to deal with the negative health effects related to being near oil refineries and other power plants for decades.

Greene argues rural areas deal with similar burdens of pollution from other industries. She named fertilizer runoff from agriculture or contamination from mining operations as examples.

Aside from needing to expand the state’s renewable energy portfolio to meet a goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, supporters of the package are also making an economic argument for their legislation.

Representative Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton) is among the sponsors. He said the legislation can provide new streams of income for those in rural areas.

“Farmers and landowners have their hands tied by restrictive ordinances that really limit what they can do with their land. And so, this legislation just provides more opportunity for them to do and make their own choices,” Puri said.

But Greene also called that point into question.

“In order to have a successful solar field, for example you actually have to have multiple farms. It’s not just one, and so they talk about us pitting neighbor against neighbor. Then you put neighbor against neighbor again. Because I don’t it want it, you want it. [You] can’t get it because [I] don’t want it,” Greene said.

The bills remain in committee and could still change before seeing a floor vote.

Elsewhere in the Senate, a clean energy plan to speed up the state’s transition from fossil fuels is going through several drafts as sponsors work toward a final product.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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