A Package of Bold Laws Puts Michigan on a Fast Track to Renewable Energy

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The Michigan Senate gave final approval on Wednesday to a bundle of clean energy bills, transforming a state at the center of industrial America into a leader in the fight against climate change.

The legislation, which passed both chambers of the Statehouse with narrow Democratic majorities, represents a turnaround for a state that had long blocked policies to curb pollution from the factories that have underpinned its economy for generations.

It is based on a 58-page “MI Healthy Climate” plan proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat with a growing national profile who has promoted progressive measures on labor, gay rights, guns and the environment.

The centerpiece of the new climate package, which Governor Whitmer is expected to sign into law later this month, would require the state to generate all of its electricity from wind, solar and other carbon-free sources by 2040, eliminating the climate-warming pollution generated by coal and gas-fired power plants.

The legislation would also tighten energy efficiency requirements for electric utilities, allow more residents to enroll in a rooftop solar energy program and streamline permits for new wind and solar power.

“With passage of these game-changing bills, Michigan will become a national leader on clean energy,” the governor said. “People want to know that they can start a family, career, or business in a state that will provide them strong economic opportunities and fight for their children’s future.”

Support for the legislation, which once would have been unthinkable in such an industrialized state, has grown as Michigan has experienced the economic toll of climate change, Governor Whitmer said. She pointed to increased flooding in Detroit, the spread of toxic algae in the Great Lakes and the decline of the state’s cherry and other fruit crops.

In 2022, coal and natural gas each supplied roughly a third of Michigan’s electricity, while nuclear power generated 22 percent, according to data compiled by the Energy Information Administration. Renewable sources of energy, chiefly wind power generated along the Lake Huron coastline, made up about 12 percent of the state’s power mix.

More than half of states already have laws or regulations requiring utilities to switch to clean electricity, but only a handful require the transition to happen at the rapid pace set by the Michigan legislation. For example, under its new law, Michigan would transition to zero-emission climate-friendly electricity sources even faster than California, which for decades has been at the vanguard of state climate action. There is no federal clean power mandate.

“The 100 percent clean electricity standard is just pathbreaking for the Midwest industrial heartland,” said Dallas Burtraw, an energy policy analyst at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan research organization. “This puts Michigan at the top tier of states in pursuing the clean energy transformation, and that’s just a short list of a half-dozen states.”

Policy analysts say that aggressive state action is essential if the United States is to meet President Biden’s target of cutting the nation’s emissions in half by 2030 and eliminating them by 2050, which scientists say all major economies must do to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

While Mr. Biden last year signed a landmark climate law and has proposed regulations to clean up pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes, those policies alone are not expected to meet his targets. The would require additional action from states.

Republicans joined with major Michigan business groups to condemn the new legislation.

“This extreme, impulsive strategy thrown together by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative Democrats will set Michigan on a disastrous economic course, stifling growth in our communities,” said Aric Nesbitt, the Republican leader in the State Senate. “Radical ideological approaches to energy policy typically result in having to correct course and revert back to traditional fuels and nuclear power that will make sure peoples’ lights come on when they flip the switch.”

Michael Johnston, a lobbyist for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, which represents Ford, General Motors, Stellantis, Dow Chemical and more than 1,000 other companies, said his members opposed the law because they feared the rapid transition would drive up energy costs and threaten the reliability of electricity supply.

“We are the manufacturing state, and energy is a primary cost input for anything we make,” he said. “And if the price of energy rises above what Michigan-located companies can pay, the less likely we can build products here.”

Mr. Johnston predicted that opposition from manufacturers to the new laws could help turn the state, which voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016 but for Mr. Biden in 2020, back toward the Republican Party.

A recent New York Times poll shows that Mr. Trump, a Republican who is running to retake the White House next year, is leading Mr. Biden in Michigan, a crucial 2024 battleground state.

“When the ballot box comes around, manufacturers in particular will remember these votes,” Mr. Johnston said.

Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, said it was unclear how Michigan voters would view the clean energy legislation during next year’s election.

“This is such a major shift after a couple of decades of very limited progress on moving toward clean energy in this battleground state, and it sets up a really interesting electoral test on whether a major pivot to clean energy pays political dividends,” Mr. Rabe said.

State Senator Sam Singh, a Democrat and lead sponsor of the legislation, said that he expected Mr. Biden’s climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, to ensure that the costs of Michigan’s energy transition were borne not by Michigan businesses and residents, but by the federal government. The law provides $370 billion in federal clean energy spending, including tax incentives for electric utilities that switch to clean energy.

“There’s a unique opportunity for us to pull down federal dollars through the I.R.A. that has never been available before,” he said. “That became a guiding force for us, to ensure that we were able to best position ourselves. We wanted to make sure the goals we’re putting forward can be achievable.”

DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, the state’s two largest electric utilities, have remained publicly neutral.

That’s in part because Democrats changed the original legislation, written by Mr. Singh, that would have required the companies to generate 100 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2035 rather than 2040.

In other concessions to electric utilities, Democrats also amended the final legislation to allow utilities to continue to burn natural gas, as long as 90 percent of the planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution produced by the gas was captured and stored, rather than released into the atmosphere. That nascent technology is not currently in wide use.

Environmentalists said that while they disliked those changes, they still saw the legislation as a victory.

“While there are things that I certainly would have added or changed, this bill package is a bold plan that shows Michigan is serious about climate change and puts it in a strong leadership position nationally,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

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