New House Dem permitting package adds heat to rural solar energy debate ⋆

As Michigan senators debate bills to create new clean energy and waste reduction standards, House Democrats have introduced a package of bills that would move permitting of wind, solar and energy storage facilities to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC). 

House Bills 5120-5123, otherwise known as the Clean Energy Jobs Act, would give the public service commission authority to permit large-scale renewable energy projects, with smaller projects remaining under control of communities.

In a Wednesday morning press conference, the bills’ sponsors emphasized the economic opportunities the bills could create for Michigan businesses as well as landowners. 

“For farmers this legislation could be life changing, because this has the potential to open up another steady and stable stream of income to be able to keep those family farms in the family just as they have for generations,” said state Rep. Ranjeev Puri (D-Canton).

“And for landowners, they should be able to do more with their land. Unfortunately, farmers and landowners across the state are oftentimes held hostage by restrictive ordinances that really tie their hands on what they’re able to do with that land,” Puri said.

Alongside enabling the buildout of clean energy sources in the state, these bills would streamline the permitting process for willing property owners and renewable energy developers, said Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids).

Judy Allen of the Michigan Townships Association testifies against bills shifting control of permitting large scale renewable energy to state regulators. | Kyle Davidson

As state lawmakers push toward meeting goals outlined in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, efforts from energy companies and independent citizens to expand clean energy projects have been countered by local ordinances. 

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

Following the press conference, members of the House Energy, Communications and Technology Committee heard testimony on the bills, with some members expressing concerns on behalf of their constituents. The committee did not vote on the bills. 

MPSC Chair Dan Scripps spoke in support of the package, citing the difficulty of energy companies finding locations for renewable energy development. He also highlighted previous legislation giving the commission oversight on the siting of petroleum and drudge oil pipelines, interstate natural gas pipelines, high voltage electrical transmission lines and carbon dioxide pipelines.

“Rather than defer to each township or village in siting this critical infrastructure, the Legislature determined that these decisions are best made at the state level,” Scripps said. 

Additionally, the approach proposed by these bills would mirror that of neighboring states like Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, whose public service commissions oversee siting for large renewable energy projects. 

The bill also grants affected local governments and participating and non-participating property owners the right to intervene in siting cases and requires developers to enter into agreements that prioritize community benefits where the project is located, Scripps said.

Members of the House Energy, Communications and Technology Committee hear testimony from Michigan Public Service Commission Chair Dan Scripps on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. | Kyle Davidson

There are also engagement requirements for the siting effort, including meeting with the chief elected official of the affected units of local government to discuss the siting plan, holding a public meeting in each affected territory, and including a summary of outreach and education efforts undertaken by a developer in its application, including summaries of its meetings with chief elected officials and the public, Scripps said. 

When reviewing these applications the commission would be required to consider the impact the proposed energy facilities have on local land use and can place conditions on its approval of a project application to address these impacts, including community benefits, Scripps said. 

“I fully expect that these protections will help ensure that the interests, perspectives and concerns of local communities will be fully evaluated and considered by the commission just as they are in every other energy infrastructure project, for which we have siting authority,” Scripps said. 

Developers could also choose to pursue project approval from a local planning authority, should a community be interested in working with developers to site projects in their territory. Additionally local governments would retain siting authority over smaller clean energy projects, with the MPSC overseeing solar projects of at least 50 megawatts, energy storage projects of 50 megawatts and 200 megawatt hours and wind projects of at least 100 megawatts, Scripps said. 

After Scripps’ testimony members of the committee shared concerns on the bills, and how they may impact local communities. 

Rep. Jenn Hill (D-Marquette) expressed concerns at the lack of definition of the public benefits used to justify an energy facility’s construction, saying it was broadly written. 

Rep. Joseph Fox (R-Fremont) testifies in opposition to a package of bills that would give the Michigan Public Service Commission authority over permits for large clean energy projects. | Kyle Davidson

Scripps responded saying determining public benefit was part of the commission’s responsibility, and that the Commission has 100 years of case law that could help inform these evaluations.

When pressed by Rep. Kathy Schmaltz (R-Jackson) on whether the bills would take away authority from local governments in siting large renewable projects, Scripps clarified the bills would give communities a voice in considering the siting of clean energy projects, but not a veto. 

Other lawmakers shared concerns from their constituents, with Rep. Jaime Greene (R-Richmond) saying all 21 of the municipalities she represents had called her in opposition to the bills.   

“You are essentially declaring war on this agricultural district,” said Greene, whose district makes up part of Michigan’s thumb region. 

Responding to Greene’s concerns that renewable energy developments would consume agricultural land, House Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) noted he was working with localities while developing the package, while pointing out the negative health impacts that communities generating energy from coal and natural gas have had to bear. 

“I want to be very clear, I have engaged the locals in this process and I intend on visiting communities that are going through this [siting] process as we speak. But the suggestion that we are being callous and inconsiderate of local communities is disrespectful to the communities that have long produced and long held the energy supply for this state,” Aiyash said. 

When Rep. Brian BeGole (R-Antrim Twp.) asked for assurance that the bill package would not lead to the state claiming eminent domain over property to site renewable energy, Aiyash noted the bill did not contain language to provide the MPSC with the authority to claim eminent domain.

While the MPSC can claim eminent domain for every other piece of energy infrastructure sited for pipelines and high-voltage transmission lines, it does not need that authority for renewable energy projects, Scripps said

“This Legislature would have to give us that authority. … It’s not included here because it’s not necessary. There’s no shortage of private land owners who want to work with developers,” Scripps said. 

Rep. Pat Outman (R-Six Lakes) slammed the package for requiring developers to enter into a project labor agreement for constructing the facility as part of the application criteria.

“That seems very unethical considering labor unions are probably some of your biggest donors,” Outman said. 

Rep. Pat Outman (R-Six Lakes) questioned Majority Floor Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) on a package of bills that would give state regulators control over permitting for large clean energy projects. | Kyle Davidson

Aiyash defended the inclusion of project labor agreements in the package. 

“What is unethical is making people work for substandard wages,” Aiyash said. “We want to ensure that people who are going to do these jobs are going to be able to pay for the necessary things for their lives, to feed their families, to house their children, and to make sure that they have a little something left in the bank to be able to enjoy life in this great state,” Aiyash said. 

Ed Rivet of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum also testified in support of the bill, but echoed Hill’s concerns at the broad definition of public benefit. 

The Michigan Townships Association, which Aiyash said he consulted while creating the bills, opposed the package, arguing that it disregards local zoning ordinances and disregards the voices of residents.

In addition to the testimony shared by lawmakers, citizens, business and labor groups during the Committee meeting, House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) issued a statement echoing concerns that the policies would negate the voices of local residents and elected officials. 

Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet), the committee minority vice chair, issued a statement following the bills’ introduction on Tuesday.

“Time and time again, we hear from Democrats in majority about respecting the will of the people. In my district, the people of Decatur spoke loudly and clearly when they shot down a solar ordinance with a margin of 80% to 20%,” Wendzel said.

“This sentiment is echoed all throughout rural Michigan with ordinances failing at the ballot box. Now with this legislation, Democrats are telling Michigan residents that elections don’t matter, and their voices don’t count. That’s wrong, and it’s undemocratic,” Wendzel said. 

Ed Rivet of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum testifies in favor of a package of bills that would give state energy regulators control over permitting for large-scale renewable energy projects. | Kyle Davidson

The Michigan Republican Party also issued a statement in opposition to the bills. 

However, environmental advocates, business and labor groups, former local government officials and some farmland owners expressed support for the effort. 

“It is well past time for the Michigan Legislature to tackle this critical issue,” Terry Anderson, a former township supervisor from Douglass Township said in a statement. 

“When a wind project was proposed in our area, it became clear immediately that forces from outside our community were fanning the flames of opposition, leading to fights among neighbors and harassment of longtime public servants,” Anderson said. “I’m normally a fierce advocate for local control, when it makes sense, but in my experience, the permitting of large energy infrastructure projects, like wind and solar farms, belong in the hands of experts at the state level. If the state wants to set significant renewable energy goals, the state should take on the burden of reviewing and approving these projects.”

As the bills’ sponsors continue discussions with stakeholders, Aiyash said they anticipate amendments to the legislation. 



authored by Kyle Davidson
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