Gretchen Whitmer Throws Weight Behind Push For 100% Carbon-Free Power

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) on Wednesday announced her support for legislation requiring her state ― the paragon of American heavy industry and the birthplace of the modern automobile ― to generate all its electricity from carbon-free sources within just 12 years.

Nearly 57% of the Great Lake State’s electricity today comes from power plants burning coal and natural gas, and the latter fuel’s share of the energy mix grew more than threefold between 2010 and last year, federal statistics show. Nuclear reactors ― one of which recently shut down and was replaced with natural gas ― provided nearly 30%, with renewables making up another 13%.

Bills introduced in the legislature ― both houses of which Democrats control for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president ― would reshuffle that mix.

Under the Senate version, renewables such as wind and solar would need to increase nearly fivefold to generate 60% of the state’s electricity in 2030. By 2035, the other 40% could be satisfied with a mix of other zero-carbon sources, including nuclear reactors and, depending on how the details are worked out, plants burning “biomass” such as wood, hydrogen fuel, or fossil fuels paired with technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions.

The House’s legislation is more prescriptive. By 2027, wind and solar would need to provide 40% of the state’s power before climbing to 60% in 2030. Michigan’s existing nuclear plants may be able to count against those targets ― thanks to negotiations led by a new House caucus in support of atomic energy. In the five years leading up to 2035, utilities in the state would be allowed to build new nuclear reactors or power stations using biomass, hydrogen or carbon capture to make up the rest.

In a Wednesday morning speech dubbed the “What’s Next Address,” Whitmer did not say which bill she preferred but called on lawmakers to “enact a 100% clean energy standard for Michigan.”

“This means all the energy we produce will be from wind, solar, or other common sense sources,” she said. “It means clean air for our kids to breathe and safe water for them to drink. And it means protecting our lakes for generations to come.”

To achieve nearly fivefold growth in renewables in just seven years, she urged legislators to provide the Michigan Public Service Commission with “more tools” to speed up permitting.

“First, it should be easier to create jobs and build wind and solar projects,” she said. “Let’s permit clean energy projects through the MPSC — just like all other sources of energy. This ensures local perspectives are reflected in the planning process while also allowing us to move faster on installation.”

The move comes just days after storms downed the state’s aging power grid, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity to run air conditioners and medical breathing equipment as summer temperatures surged past 90 degrees Fahrenheit and wildfire smoke from Canada polluted the air.

It was the latest in a series of such outages, including several in just the past few months. Michigan’s utilities have some of the nation’s worst reliability numbers, even though the rates residents pay are relatively high for the Great Lakes, according to an independent study published earlier this year.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a business lobby that has historically downplayed the need to cut emissions, warned that the targets in the bill were “unrealistic” and threatened “significant economic burdens on the business community and unintended consequences for Michigan families.”

But the recent spate of power outages show “the big energy utility companies’ utter failure to prepare for climate change and its effects” despite charging some of the highest rates in the Midwest, said Bob Allison, the deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

“They’ve left people in the dark for too long,” he said. “People want them held accountable. The governor is joining them to require the utilities to move faster.”

While 22 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have adopted 100% clean-energy targets, just 13 states have enshrined those goals into law. Michigan would be the 14th.

The energy bills are part of a spate of progressive legislation under Whitmer, a second-term governor widely discussed as a potential future Democratic White House contender.

Jonathan Cohn contributed reporting from Michigan.

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