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Issues of the Environment: Growing the clean energy jobs sector in Washtenaw County

Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi.
Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi.


  • Innovation and technology centers, especially large universities like Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan, are in a good position to advance job growth from the need for climate change solutions. According to Jonathan Overpeck, climate scientist at the Samuel A. Graham Dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, “[Climate change] positions Michigan to become a big economic winner in the rapidly expanding clean energy sustainable solutions markets growing around the globe. Most people reading this will already understand that Michigan’s mobility industry is well-positioned to benefit greatly as the whole planet transitions to electric cars, trucks, buses, etc.
  • At the same time, Michigan could also see an expansion of businesses offering other knowledge and technological solutions to the world as the entire global economy transitions from fossil fuels to sustainable and just low-carbon economies. A key to the creation of a new robust low-carbon economic engine in Michigan is the ability to attract the innovative workforce and companies to the state who can partner with our premier universities to provide the solutions needed not just in Michigan, but around the globe. This workforce talent will require a Michigan that is a climate action leader in its own backyard, and a Michigan that is indeed a climate refuge as well, one complete with well-paying jobs, a beautiful environment and an affordable cost of living. A state with a sustainable and just economy.” (Source: *directly quoted* https://news.umich.edu/climate-change-and-michigan-challenges-and-opportunities/)
  • In addition to advancing climate solutions through research and development at large universities, of particular interest to Washtenaw County and the surrounding communities are new opportunities in the clean transportation sector. There was 11.2% growth of jobs in the clean transportation sector in the Midwest, the region’s fastest-growing sector in 2022. Although the slower than anticipated uptake of EVs has given the auto manufacturing industry pause and led to speculation that fewer jobs might be anticipated, there are still 658 clean vehicles jobs and 4,225 gas/diesel vehicles jobs in the green energy division in Washtenaw County, according to Cleanjobsamerica.e2.org


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to take a peek into 2024 and see where growth may occur in the climate and energy sector. I'm David Fair, and welcome to WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Governor Gretchen Whitmer in November signed into law the Clean Energy and Jobs Act, and it's meant to create a more sustainable climate and energy future while creating growth in so-called green jobs. When he served as a state representative from Ann Arbor, Yousef Rabhi was a strong proponent of such measures. Now he represents the eighth district on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and continues to work on generating more clean energy solutions. Commissioner Rabhi, thank you so much for the time today. I appreciate it.

Yousef Rabhi: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's good to be here with you.

David Fair: It had to be a source of satisfaction for you when Governor Whitmer signed that Clean Energy and Jobs Act into law.

Yousef Rabhi: What's cool to see is legislation that I had been working on for so many years--you know, six years in the Legislature in minority sponsoring--legislation around creating a renewable energy portfolio in Michigan, a higher renewable energy standard going toward 100% renewable energy, expanding solar. And a lot of those components were kind of built into the bill package that Governor Whitmer signed. So, it's really cool to see all those concepts and bills that I worked on for so many years kind of get wrapped into one big piece of legislation and signed into law. So, yes, huge amount of satisfaction to see that. I told somebody the other day it kind of felt like keeping a match lit in a rainstorm for six years. But now to see that that match has lit a fire is really rewarding.

David Fair: We've had a rolling start to the clean energy jobs market in Michigan, and it is continuing to pick up steam. According to Clean Jobs America, Washtenaw County ranks sixth in the state when it comes to clean jobs creation. How, as a member of the county board, are you looking to build on that?

Yousef Rabhi: Well, that's a great question. And, you know, obviously, sixth in the state is not good enough for for me. And I think that's true for a lot of my colleagues. We've done a lot of work in this in Washtenaw County, and some of it even happened before my time coming back to the county board. So, while I was a state legislator, but my colleagues and those that served on the county board during that time created the Environmental Council. And that council has been meeting now for several years and doing really good work on planning and building not just clean energy, but resiliency and sustainability, what the future looks like in Washtenaw County. And so, one of the things that we that we fought for this year was to create positions to actually staff the resiliency office in Washtenaw County. And so, the first two of those positions were funded in the budget that we voted on earlier this month. And so, we are excited to go into 2024 with the prospect of hiring for those two positions to really get this resiliency office and the Environmental Council off the ground in many ways and bring it to the next level. And bring in grant dollars, there's so much federal money right now, and even some state money to a degree to bring into the county to do all kinds of different projects. And really having these staff is going to be huge. So, that was a huge win for us in this budget and something that I worked really hard on. What I was hoping for is that we'd have three positions funded. We only got two. Two is still a win, but we're going to go back to the drawing board in 2024 and try to get that third position.

David Fair: We're talking with Yousef Rabhi on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Yousef represents the eight district on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. And you talk about federal money. Of course, the Inflation Reduction Act was quite important in to providing resources necessary to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. How much will that play into the 2024 budget in your ability to accomplish some of the goals, like filling that other position?

Yousef Rabhi: We're going to have capacity to actually go after these grant dollars, and that is going to have a snowball effect, right? We'll be able to go and apply for this money, bring it in, and that will have a growing effect of amplifying what we can do. So, it will draw down dollars. We're very excited about that. There's a lot of money available right now at the state level that, within the next 12 to 24 months, it's going to start going away, unfortunately. So, we're kind of running up against the clock that we need to start applying for this money and bringing it into the county.

David Fair: Washtenaw County, as you know, is home to the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College, all of whom are charged with helping create the clean energy workforce of the future. How is the county working directly with these institutions to help ensure there's going to be employees to fill all of the needed jobs locally?

Yousef Rabhi: Well, that's something that we're in ongoing conversations about, right, and trying to build that network. But the other piece about workforce that I wanted to talk about early quickly is one of the really cool things about what was signed into law is that the bill package included the creation of essentially a worker transition office at the state level, because one of the issues that we know is what happens to all of the workers that become displaced that are fossil fuel--you know, part of the fossil fuel economy--how do we make sure that they're able to transition into the green energy future that we envision for our state. Every time we make these types of decisions, let's think about what is the impact on those workers and how do we make sure that those workers have an opportunity in this new economy. And that is so absolutely critical and central to any conversations that we should be having. It's an issue of equity. It's an issue of transparency. It's an issue of justice. And so, yes, it's about colleges, it's about universities and it's about labor unions and the workers that they represent because a lot of the laborers, the operating engineers, the IBEW, many of these building trades unions in our community, the plumbers and pipefitters, they have extensive training programs where they actually bring their workforce up to the standards of the day, so that they have the highest quality work products. There are partners all across the board that have already been coming to the table in these conversations to make sure that the conversation is inclusive.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi on 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment, and I want to move that conversation a little further down the road when we talk about partnership and collaboration. As you know, we've learned through any number of crises, dirty air and dirty water, they know no boundaries. How important is it to further strategize and work across county lines to think more regionally and development of clean energy and climate mitigation strategies and solutions?

Yousef Rabhi: Absolutely critical. And so, in addition to my service on the County Board of Commissioners, I am the county's liaison to SEMCOG, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which is a regional organization that covers the seventy counties of Southeast Michigan. And one of the things that they're doing that's really cool is that they're doing a lot of this planning and regionalizing the conversations. The other thing to consider here is we do need more state laws. And one of the things that I worked really hard on as a state representative is creating stronger polluter pay laws in the state. That was something I championed every term of my time in office, and it was really cool to see those bills get reintroduced this term. And that's something that we absolutely need to see get passed. That's the kind of thinking that, again, helps us get beyond these jurisdictional boundaries to say pollution that happens in, like we saw, in the Huron River pollution that happens in Oakland County and Milford/Wixom area it comes downstream to impact us. So, creating that statewide and that regional mindset around these things is absolutely critical. We're not going to solve these problems without it.

David Fair: So, as we take a peek and prepare to enter 2024, Washtenaw County and the City of Ann Arbor all have very ambitious climate or carbon neutrality goals in an effort to better mitigate the climate crisis. How much advancement is necessary in Washtenaw County over the next 12 months to stay on track to meet those goals? [

Yousef Rabhi: We have a lot of work to do. I mean, that's the reality here. We are behind. Countywide, at least, we're behind. And frankly, I think, even if you look at it from municipality to municipality, and if you zoom out even more, we're behind nationally and we're behind globally. But it's about what can we do, right? What can we do in our backyard and our community to help advance that broader goal? And I think we do have a lot of work to do, but we have a community that is ready and willing to step up to the challenge and make a difference. And what we saw, even with these positions that I was talking about earlier, it wasn't a sure thing. The initial proposal that was put forward by administration was to fund one of the positions for one year, and the community came out in droves to our board meetings, to speak at public comment, sent us emails, sent us written public comment. And really, this groundswell of public support for, "Hey, we need to be taking care of our future. We need to be taking care of our planet," that's really what helped make the difference in getting the proposal that I put forward to fund two of the positions long-term. That was the difference. It was really the community coming together on that. So, yes, we have a long way to go, but we have a community that is ready and willing to organize to make it happen. And so, I have a lot of faith in our community and our county government and our city government to come together to make that happen.

David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you for the time today and wish you and yours a very happy early New Year!

Yousef Rabhi: Thank you. And to you as well. Thank you so much for having me, as always.

David Fair: That is Washtenaw County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, our guest on the final edition of issues of the Environment for 2023. We'll be back with this weekly series in 2024 as Issues of the Environment enters its 29th year on the air at WEMU. For more information on today's topic and to visit the archive, check out our website at wemu.org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. We bring it to you every Wednesday. 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
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