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Opinion: Michigan is turning the corner on clean energy

Opinion: Michigan is turning the corner on clean energy

(alexsl/filipefrazao/Rudez Studio/Canva)

By Nicholas Jansen

June 28, 2024

Michigan has seen groundbreaking clean energy investments, now it’s time to connect rural and low-income communities to these federal funding opportunities.

If you’re driving around Michigan for summer vacation, you might be noticing more than just construction along Michigan’s roads and highway—new arrays of solar panels might also be catching your eye. 

Whether it’s a large field hosting a utility-scale solar project, like off of I-69 in Marshall, or at a school, like the solar arrays at all seven schools within the Flushing Community School district, or on a private landowner’s roof or farmland, solar energy development is expanding throughout the state. In fact, since 2014, Michigan’s solar output has increased more than eightfold. Guided by the MI Healthy Climate Plan, which lays out a pathway for Michigan to reach 100% carbon neutrality by 2050, Michigan is turning the corner on local, clean energy. 

There are multiple reasons for that renewable energy progress. Solar is more affordable and reliable than ever before. Looking at the average cost of generating electricity over the lifetime of a generation plant, utility scale solar is the cheapest form of energy we have. Solar infrastructure also creates jobs. At the end of 2023, Michigan led the Midwest in clean energy jobs and workers with nearly 124,000 jobs in the clean energy sector. 

Further, clean energy benefits go beyond the direct installment. In Michigan, clean power provides $61.3 million in state and local taxes annually and rural landowners receive $46.7 million annually in steady, reliable drought-proof land-lease payments. This is tax revenue that goes right back to the community to improve roads, schools, emergency services such as the fire department and police, and other municipal services.

This is because of the new orders that the MPSC (Michigan Public Service Commission) issued around renewable energy standards. From siting of utility-scale clean energy projects, to increasing renewable portfolio standards for Michigan utilities to 60% by 2035, these projects will bring an increased tax base to the communities that host this new, local infrastructure. 

This is good news for communities all over our state, especially for our rural, low-income, and disadvantaged communities. We have seen disinvestment in these communities for decades as manufacturing jobs have left, hospitals in rural communities are struggling to stay open, and schools struggle with staff and budget shortfalls. This boom in local, clean energy investments is proving to be a life-line for homeowners by lowering energy costs and increasing much needed tax revenue for their communities. 

Michigan and the federal government have been doing a lot to facilitate the support of funds to these disadvantaged communities. There is the Inflation Reduction Act, which is providing billions in tax credits and benefits for states to install clean energy generation and storage. We have a historic $156 million investment in solar energy by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called Michigan Solar for All (MISFA). These funds are for Michigan to accelerate the deployment of community and rooftop solar for thousands of low-income households across the state. 

In addition, Michigan also recently started the small but mighty Office of Rural Prosperity that is running programs like the Rural Readiness Network, which connects rural communities with resources that advance their priorities.

Lastly, one of the biggest hurdles to local, clean energy development has been removed. Prior to the passage of PA 233 through the MI Healthy Climate Plan in 2023, 20 of the state’s 83 counties had passed illegal “exclusionary ordinances” blocking or delaying wind or solar developments. Now, local land owners, such as farmers, who need an extra stable source of income, can turn to local wind and solar leases and cannot be told “no” by local restrictions. 

With all this progress being made, there is still one big hurdle that the State of Michigan needs to help rural, low-income, and disadvantaged communities benefit from these state and federal programs. That is capacity. If you ask many small town commissioners, school boards, city councils, and other decision making bodies about tapping into these funds, you would hear that they want to, but they simply lack the time and expertise to go through the cumbersome grant application and reporting process. 

We need both the state and federal government to continue to work with local decision makers to provide not only dollars, but skilled workers and accessible information to make sure these funds are going to the communities they’re designed for in a timely manner. The Office of Rural Prosperity provides some support but doesn’t have the staff to help all the communities that need the help. 

Michigan has thousands of designated J40 communities, a federal initiative that identifies and aims to empower disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and/or overburdened. If we’re going to support all the communities that need assistance for a just, clean energy transition, we need more people power to help these communities access the available resources. 

Michigan is starting to turn the corner on our local clean energy development. If we want to make sure that all of our communities are benefitting from this transition, we need to also invest in people to help rural and low income communities access the state and federal funding opportunities.

Related: ‘Well-paying, stable careers’: Michigan union workers gear up for ‘Clean Energy Future’

Author

  • Nicholas Jansen

    Nicholas is the Rural Clean Energy Organizer with Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, bringing a decade of experience of clean energy and climate advocacy in Michigan.

CATEGORIES: INFRASTRUCTURE
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