Legislature OKs final bills giving state regulators authority over renewable energy permits ⋆

In a party-line vote on Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled Michigan Senate advanced a package of energy siting bills that proponents say would streamline permitting for large-scale renewable energy developments. 

The House approved the final versions of the bills later on Wednesday. The legislation now heads to the desk of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had declared that the package was one of her top fall priorities. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlines her fall legislative priorities during a “What’s Next Address” in Lansing on Aug. 30, 2023. (Andrew Roth/)

“I am grateful for the commonsense amendments that ensure local communities can work with utilities on developing clean energy sites,” she said in a statement Wednesday evening. “People want to know that they can start a family, career, or business in a state that will provide them with strong economic opportunities and fight for their children’s future. Today we are protecting everything we know and love about pure Michigan.”

The two-bill package passed the House last week, following a flurry of amendments to the lead bill, House Bill 5120.

While the package was initially made up of four bills, House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) said the two bills that passed the House accomplished the goal of the package. 

At Tuesday’s Senate Committee on Energy and Environment meeting, state Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton), one of the sponsors, broke down the amended legislation.

The package would place permitting for large scale renewable energy projects — including solar energy developments with a capacity of 50 megawatts or more; wind facilities with 100 megawatts or more; and energy storage facilities with a capacity of 50 megawatts or more and a discharge capacity of 200 megawatts or greater —under the control of the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), which regulates energy companies in the state. 

However, Puri said recent amendments to the bill would require energy companies to work with municipalities whose permitting process mirrors that of the state, giving the two parties 120 days to reach an agreement. They can also apply for an extension for another 120 days. 

Under these changes, electrical providers can submit a permitting application to the MPSC if the impacted community fails to approve or deny an application in a timely manner, if the local zoning process is stricter than the standards outlined in the bill, or if a project meets the standards outlined in the bill, but the application is denied. 

“Before it was an option for the applicant to choose to work with the local municipality or forgo the MPSC process first,” Puri said. “But now they are forced to work with the local municipality, giving them the right to have that conversation first. If — again — if, they have a local process developed.”

Additionally, developers would have to pay communities $2,000 per megawatt of the project’s capacity to fund police, fire, public safety, other infrastructure or for other projects agreed to by the local unit and the developer.

Michigan Public Service Commission Chair Dan Scripps. | Kyle Davidson

Michigan Public Service Commission Chair Dan Scripps said the state’s current approach to siting renewable energy developments was broken, and would hinder the state’s ability to meet clean energy goals passed by the House and Senate. 

“It’s difficult to see how we meet these commitments or our broader renewable energy goals without meaningful siting reform,” Scripps said.

These changes would also bring siting for large-scale renewable energy developments under the same process as the majority of the state’s energy infrastructure, Scripps said, later noting the commission holds authority over the siting of high-voltage transmission lines, natural gas, petroleum and carbon dioxide pipelines. 

The bills faced staunch opposition from Republicans, who said the bills would take away power from local governments and would result in the loss of farmland in rural communities across the state.  

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) asked Scripps whether the commission would deny permitting requests that had been denied by communities. 

Scripps said he didn’t expect the commission would reach a different result from the community unless that municipality was applying different standards than are in state law. 

“I don’t expect that we would often arrive at a different result, unless the local community is applying standards, other than those that are set out in state law, that’re going further, or they’re saying, ‘We don’t care what the law says. We just don’t want it here,’” Scripps said.

“In that case, I think we would, in those cases, like we do in other energy infrastructure cases, balance the sort of local concerns against the state’s interest in that infrastructure,” Scripps said.

Rep. John Damoose, Jan. 12, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Following the bill’s passage, Damoose issued a statement saying the bills would allow the state to bulldoze local decision making. 

“Local governments have an opportunity to provide input, but the outcome is predetermined. The only authority that locals maintain in this power grab is the ability to say yes,” Damoose said.

In committee, supporters noted the package contains explicit language to prevent eminent domain takings and protecting farmland from being diminished by renewable energy developments. 

“No one will ever be forced to give up any land,” Puri said.

“This is very much a property rights issue. If a farm owner or landowner willingly wants to lease his or her land for solar or wind, this process finds them away to be able to do just that. Far too often a local authority denies permits because someone on the township board doesn’t like the way that these look,” Puri said.

According to a report from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, 26 localities have policies blocking or restricting renewable energy developments. 

Michigan House approves changes to clean energy siting, renewable standards and more

Following the passage of House Bills 5120 and 5121, Evergreen Action, a clean energy and climate advocacy organization released a statement in support of the bills.

“These bills strike a balance between economic development, environmental protection, and the needs of local communities—positioning Michigan as a clean energy leader,” said Courtney Bourgoin, Evergreen Action’s Midwest senior policy and advocacy manager. 

The bills also received support from a variety of clean energy and environmental advocacy groups, including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Clinicians for Climate Action and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

authored by Kyle Davidson
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2023%2F11%2F08%2Flegislature-oks-final-bills-giving-state-regulators-authority-over-renewable-energy-permits%2F

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