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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: The Clean Energy and Jobs Act

Kara Cook, Chief of Staff to the Director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy._
Kara Cook
Kara Cook, Chief of Staff to the Director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

ABOUT KARA COOK:

Kara Cook is chief of staff for EGLE. She has worked in various roles within the executive office, most recently serving as a senior policy advisor to Governor Whitmer focused in the areas of energy and environmental protection. Before joining the Executive Office of the Governor, Kara served on the Whitmer-Gilchrist transition, where she helped set an agenda for the Governor’s first 100 days in office. Previously, she worked in government affairs at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Cook holds a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from Grand Valley State University.

ABOUT LISA WOZNIAK:

Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
/
michiganlcv.org
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.'

RESOURCES:

Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE)

Governor Whitmer Announces Cabinet, Commission, and Staff Updates (includes Kara Cook bio)

Governor Whitmer Signs Historic Clean Energy & Climate Action Package

TRANSCRIPTION:

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to the December edition of First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair, and on the first Friday of each month, we take a look at a topic of environmental importance--important to our community, important to our state. Today, we're going to look at an historic piece of legislation signed into law this week by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. My partner and co-host on First Fridays is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Welcome back, Lisa Wozniak.

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you, Dave. Our guest today is Kara Cook. She has held a number of critical titles in Lansing and currently serves as chief of staff to the director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Welcome to the WEMU airwaves. Kara.

Kara Cook: Thank you for having me.

Lisa Wozniak: As Dave mentioned at the outset, Governor Whitmer signed into law the Clean Energy and Jobs Act. It makes Michigan the second swing state to go 100% clean energy by 2040. And as he noted, many are calling this historic. Would you characterize it that way?

Kara Cook: Absolutely! I mean, going back to August, when the governor gave her What's Next Address, which was a State of the State-like speech where she called for this climate action, she set a vision. And the Democrats in the Legislature really overdelivered on that. These bills really make Michigan a national clean energy leader, and not just because of the clean energy standards that you both mentioned, but because of the new tools that these pieces of legislation give. Our Michigan Public Service Commission, our state's utility regulators, look at environmental justice, climate affordability and workers' rights and so much more. These bills are an incredible movement from the status quo. Before these bills, we didn't have a clean energy standard. Our renewable energy standard was just at 15%. We capped rooftop solar at 1%. And, you know, these bills really help us implement the MI Healthy Climate plan, our state's climate action plan, and will help households save $145 a year in energy costs. It will help us secure nearly $8 billion in federal investment and will also spur the creation of thousands of jobs. So, these are a really big deal.

David Fair: This package of bills was obviously designed to create certain outcomes, and you've noted a few of them. How do you envision that it will transform quality of life for the people of Michigan?

Kara Cook: I mean, I think a few things. When we were looking at this, we really wanted to center reliability and affordability along with our clean energy goals. So, as I stated, we're talking about over $100 a year in savings. And these bills also guarantee that any additional cost savings that come from renewable energy or energy efficiency efficiency are guaranteed to go back to rate payers like all of us, not investors or shareholders at the utilities. So, this is going to lower costs for folks. We're going to have huge public health benefits from this. Obviously, we're going to see impacts in the extreme weather events and climate impacts that are facing the people of the state of Michigan and hopefully start to see less and less of those as we get these bills fully implemented.

David Fair: This is WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. And our guest today is chief of staff to the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. I'm David Fehr, alongside my co-host, Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director, Lisa Wozniak.

Lisa Wozniak: So, you've noted, Kara, that in addition to economic opportunities and climate change initiatives, there are a lot of co-benefits. And those include the improved health for the people of Michigan. How are you and the staff at EGLE looking at this in terms of specific air, land and water improvement goals? And have you designed a pathway to get there?

Kara Cook: Yeah. One of the biggest things that this bill does is to allow the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to really get more involved is codify an action that the governor took back in 2020, where she expanded an opinion that EGLE gives to our utility regulators to make sure that they're appropriately considering public health impacts, environmental justice impacts and community impacts. So, I mean, if you look at what we've seen over the last two decades with air quality improvements, as we've shut down uneconomic coal plants, there's been a 73% decrease in particulate matter pollution--pollution that causes asthma and cancers and all sorts of other health issues--with this new trajectory towards 100% clean energy. We can expect to see that more.

David Fair: Some of the renewable energy initiatives contained in this package have drawn a lot of attention, both good and bad. Some Michigan residents have become loud opponents to having solar and wind facilities sited in their communities. The package gives the state the right to decide where these installations will be located, causing some to object to a lack of local control. What is your message to the leaders and residents of those communities?

Kara Cook: I'd say a few things. You know, these bills as are introduced are different than as they are passed. So, the bills still keep control at the local level as the governor signed them. So, I think that we did a really good job of making sure that we could streamline our process of deploying renewable energy at the scope and scale that we needed to while maintaining those benefits and voices of local communities. You know, renewables are new in a lot of communities, and residents and local governments don't always know what to expect. We really need to have early engagement in education from our developers and everyone involved on what the processes for deploying the benefits from jobs to investment in property taxes. And we need to go above and beyond. And that's something that we did in this bill. So, we not only streamlined the process, but we made sure that there was really robust community benefit, making sure that communities get paid on top of their tax revenue to pay for things, like infrastructure and public safety improvements. I think the other thing that's important to remember is these projects are essential to the affordability and reliability of our energy system as dirty, uneconomic fossil plants are decommissioned. I guess the last thing I would say is this is also a private property right. We heard from so many farmers and landowners from across the state that have been working to try to keep their land in their families. And renewable energy projects have offered them new economic opportunities, not only so they can get a little bit more money in their pocketbooks, but that they can keep their land in their family for future generations.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the environment. And our conversation with Kara Cook continues. Kara is chief of staff to the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Lisa Wozniak: So, Kara, Michigan's rooftop solar cap was increased in this legislation, but independently owned and subscribed community solar will still not be allowed. In deploying renewable energy and spreading both its burdens and its benefits, don't we need an all of the above approach to siting and scale just as the utility scale may fit better in rural communities? I would think we would also want to be encouraging small and medium facilities on brownfields and urban centers.

Kara Cook: Yeah, we need an all of the above approach in order to meet our renewable goals. These bills have really ambitious standards. As I shared, we're at about 16% renewables right now in Michigan. These bills call for 50% renewables by 2030 and 60% by 2035. So, we're going to need everything from your distributed generation projects, like rooftop solar, all the way to the utility scale wind and solar farm. You know, that's why these bills also increased the distributed generation cap that allows for rooftop solar by tenfold, and why we streamline the process for those large projects. Every community is going to have a different opportunity to host these projects and benefit from them. When we developed the legislation, we really wanted to make sure that we were opening up the markets and opportunities for all communities.

Lisa Wozniak: Indeed! The Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as well as the more recent Inflation Reduction Act, made millions--billions--of dollars available for clean and efficient energy and transmission investments. Clearly, that made a difference in this clean energy package. But most of that was one-time money. How does a state look at this longer term? Can we maintain the momentum in the progress without much greater revenue creation and investment?

Kara Cook: We're definitely going to need continued investments to make sure that we are fully taking advantage of the clean energy transition. But I will say President Biden's bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act are the biggest investments in climate action in the history of the United States. And we're really just at the beginning of that process. So, there's much more to come. I mean, at the state level, we've mobilized as much as possible to make sure that we're bringing home as much of that funding that we really need to meet our clean energy goals and other key priorities of the governor and communities. And we've been really successful so far. Michigan is leading other states on bringing home these dollars. We're actually number two in the country at drawing down federal climate and clean energy dollars just behind California and are the number one state at drawing down economic development projects in the Inflation Reduction Act. I mean, we've received hundreds of millions of dollars, and there's still so many more opportunities that haven't even announced themselves to be available to the state. So, while we do need to have continued conversations around what comes next, we're still working at making sure that we take the best advantage of the dollars that are in front of us.

David Fair: Kara, I'd like to thank you so much for sharing time with us today and giving us insights from your perspective and that of your department. We are grateful.

Kara Cook: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Kara Cook. She is chief of staff for the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The other voice you've heard today is that of Lisa Wozniak. She's executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and my partner in WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. Lisa, congratulations to you and your team! I know you worked hard on getting these package of bills passed. It's always a pleasure! And I look forward to seeing you in the New Year!

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you, David! It was a team effort. And I look forward to our next time together.

David Fair: For more information on today's conversation, pay a visit to our website at wemu.org. 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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