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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Ann Arbor State Senator Jeff Irwin pushing utility accountability and focus on renewable energy

Jeff Irwin
Michigan Senate Democrats
Michigan Senator Jeff Irwin


Senator Jeff Irwin is a fearless advocate for the environment, public education, and criminal justice reform, among other areas. He is serving his second term in the Michigan Senate.

Since 2018, Senator Irwin has introduced legislation tightening regulations against polluters and ensuring our schools are properly screening students for dyslexia — and getting them the help they need. He has worked to allow more juvenile offenders to seal their records, expunge all cannabis-related offenses, ban PFAS in food packaging and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Irwin has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan and lives in Washtenaw County. He represented the City of Ann Arbor in the Michigan House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017.


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Jeff Irwin

Gov. Whitmer’s What’s Next Address as Prepared for Delivery


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and a new legislative session is about to get underway in Lansing. And there are goals and aspirations when it comes to environmental protections. I'm David Fair, and welcome to First Friday Focus on the Environment. This is our monthly conversation in which we partner with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and discuss topics of environmental importance to our community here and throughout the state. Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the MLCV and my co-host each month. And, Lisa, Governor Whitmer this week touched on some of the measures she would like addressed in this session. What was your takeaway?

Lisa Wozniak: Yeah. I actually had a chance to be there, and I think the speech was an indication that the governor really gets it around climate and energy. I heard the governor making a commitment to clean energy legislation getting across the finish line this fall. And she talked about it with urgency as it pertains to sort of to the economy, to health and to jobs. Frankly, I mean, we've we've had a summer full of flooding, air quality issues. We've had damaged buildings and sewage in our waterways. And she spoke about that. She spoke about the fact that clean energy jobs are more than just putting solar panels on roofs. But it's all about weatherizing homes and small businesses, the people that paint various different facilities. And she talked about our health and our well-being. So, I've got some hope here. I think that we really are going to see some change.

David Fair: And our guest on First Friday this month has his hand in the legislative pot, as it were, and has some environmental legislative priorities all his own.

Lisa Wozniak: That's right, Dave. Jeff Irwin is a Democratic State Senator from Ann Arbor, representing the 15th District and in his final term. And, Senator, I'd like to start with your impressions of the governor's speech.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I thought it was an exciting speech. I also had the opportunity to be there along with you and the governor and so many others. And I think you did a great job of outlining why the speech was exciting. She, I think, did a great job of highlighting how we can grow clean energy jobs and make our grid more resilient and that there is tremendous opportunity. And I'm also excited about the urgency because these are issues that I've worked on for a long time. I think they're really important to the day-to-day concerns of our people here in Michigan. And I think that what we've seen recently with the outages and the flooding and all the damage from the weather, that really highlights the urgency for this. The other thing that's driving the urgency is the federal resources that are on the table. If Michigan doesn't act quickly to enact some better energy policies, we're not going to be able to take full advantage of some of the federal resources that are there to support our clean energy economy.

David Fair: So, let's go further down that line. Given the events of the spring and summer, I'd like to start with the issue of utility accountability. The number and length of power outages, as noted, have a lot of folks not only frustrated, but wondering why are the utility rates continuing to go up every year and the outages seem to become more frequent and for longer. Where is the money going?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, if you listen to the utilities in their calls with their shareholders, it seems that they are saving a lot of money on maintenance staff and driving value to the stockholders in that way. But that value isn't being driven to the customers here in Michigan, who deserve better. The kind of power performance, the kind of reliability we get here, particularly in southeast Michigan, is an embarrassment. And the accountability measures we have in place to require the utilities to compensate citizens when they're damaged by those outages are pitiful. And so, I think when you look at the Senate clean energy package, there is an element in there that will help address that, which is to give the Michigan Public Service Commission more power--more teeth--to be able to drive accountability. And you can see that they're starting a conversation about that now. And I think that's hopeful. But I think that we need to go even further than that. There are other bills in the Legislature that could make sure that payments to residents come faster and come in larger amounts when they face these large outages.

David Fair: You're listening to WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment with State Senator Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor. Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Senator, what role do you see local solar, like rooftop solar and community solar, playing in Michigan's energy future?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I think this is really important. As distributive energy gets cheaper and cheaper and more competitive, more people are turning to that option and more people are looking for ways that they can invest in our clean energy future at their home or at their business, or maybe with some sort of community solar array. And so, that's why I've been fighting for an energy system here in Michigan that is free, that is fair to consumers and that is functional. And in order for us to do that and in order for us to take advantage of the maximum amount of federal support for our residents, we need to do a couple of things. One, we need to eliminate the legal restrictions on rooftop solar. Right now, there's a cap on the number of customers who can put rooftop solar on their home. That should be eliminated. There are very strict limits on how big of a system that you can put on. We need to relax those. And the pricing, the payments that people get when they put energy back on the grid are very, very low. We need to fix that. Make it more fair for consumers. Make it more market-based, so that folks aren't discouraged from investing in a more distributed, clean and reliable network.

Lisa Wozniak: So, do you think that community solar and distributed generation cap bills will be part of the larger package that are being considered in the Legislature this fall?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I hope so. And I'm fighting to make them a part of that. I mean, if you look at what happened in Minnesota, they enacted community solar opportunities in Minnesota, and ratepayers have saved over $11 million just in the last couple of years since they've done that. And so, there are real opportunities for people to save money. We can create jobs. And also, when you look at the solar market, there's rooftop solar. There is incredibly large, you know, utility-scale solar arrays. That's how it's often referred to. And then, there are these medium-sized, community solar opportunities. And when you look at cities like the city of Detroit or city I represent, Ypsilanti, or cities like Flint that have these very large brownfields, they're not really large enough for a utility-scale array, but they'd be perfect for a community solar array that would allow more people to invest, get those neighborhoods involved, revitalize those properties that are currently laying fallow.

David Fair: One of the biggest issues on that front is the problem of NIMBY--Not in my Backyard. There have been communities throughout the state that have objected to such arrays and will continue to do so.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I think that's a big challenge, and the Legislature is dealing with that challenge right now. Some folks are talking about changing the amount and level of local control around the siting of solar. But this encourages me to bring it back to community solar. While we have communities, largely rural communities, who are saying they don't want to look at these solar panels, we've got other communities, like urban communities that have brownfields and polluted properties, that could be turned into these medium-sized community solar farms. These are communities that are saying yes. So, that's why it's so important that we provide that opportunity. We open that up. We remove the legal restrictions for the areas that are trying to say yes and that are begging for these investments.

David Fair: Ann Arbor is looking at the feasibility of a community utility that would be more reliant on renewable energy. Would you like to see that come to fruition? And would you like to see that proliferate throughout the state?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I've long been a supporter of public power, and I've been on the advisory committee of Ann Arbor for Public Power because, you know, we think our residents deserve cheaper, cleaner, more reliable energy. And when we look at the multiple municipal power operations across the state, we see that customers in those communities like Lansing and Holland, Marshall, Chelsea, Wyandotte, Traverse City, many others, are all getting that kind of cheaper, more reliable, cleaner service. So, I think we have an obligation to examine that on behalf of the citizens, and that's what we're doing. And I'm really hopeful that the city has commissioned a feasibility study to look into that, because most of the people in our nation receive power from a public authority. And these are natural monopolies. I think it makes sense to look at them that way and to at least analyze the opportunities that our citizens would have to go to public power.

David Fair: Once again, I'm David Fair, alongside Lisa Wozniak from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And we're talking with Democratic State Senator Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor on WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment.

Lisa Wozniak: The House and the Senate have introduced bill packages in the respective chambers to move Michigan to 100% carbon-free energy, bolster energy efficiency and, as you mentioned, give more authority to the Michigan Public Service Commission. There are definitely differences between these two packages that they need to be worked out. And I'm wondering if you could speak to whether these differences will be resolved and if you actually are optimistic that action will be taken this fall.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: I'm very optimistic that we'll take some action. There are too many reasons to do it and not many reasons to not do it. So, I'm hopeful that we will take some action and that we will reconcile those differences. You know, I think that there are great elements in both packages, and we just need to work hard to bring those together. You know, for instance, one of the ones that I really appreciate in the House packages--Representative McKinney's bill--that provides tax incentives for storage equipment. More and more folks are realizing that locating some energy storage at their home can be a tremendously good answer for reliability but can also save them money. And so, you know, giving folks more tools and providing tax incentives for folks to buy that kind of equipment. And then in his proposal--Representative McKinney's proposal--even creates greater incentives for low income folks to buy that kind of equipment. So, those are that's a really exciting idea. And I'm hoping that we can put those great ideas from both packages together and get something done.

David Fair: We've spent the entirety of our conversation talking about energy, but Michigan is also home to thousands of contaminated sites, many of which are without a party that can be held financially responsible. In the past, Michigan, at one time, had some of the strongest polluter accountability laws in the country. Is this the session new polluter pay legislation finally makes it back before the Legislature?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I think it definitely is going to make it back before the legislature. Representative Morgan and I have been working together on developing a package of bills that would enhance our polluter accountability laws--you know, bring back a stronger polluter pay approach here in Michigan. And we've been having really good conversations with stakeholders, you know, from the regulators to the environmental community to the industry itself to, you know, try to slog through this complicated and important issue. How do we make sure that there are less orphan sites left behind for the taxpayers to deal with? How do we make sure that industry is encouraged to do the right thing by Michigan's environment? Those are really important conversations for the future of our state, and there's definitely gonna be legislation introduced.

David Fair: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, Senator Irwin. We will continue to check in throughout the legislative session.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Great. Thanks for having me on.

David Fair: That is State Senator Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat joining us on First Friday Focus on the Environment. This monthly conversation series is produced in partnership with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and its executive director is my co-host. Lisa Wozniak, I appreciate your time and look forward to our October visit.

Lisa Wozniak: I always look forward to our next visit. David.

David Fair: I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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