- Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign a set of clean energy bills that would reform the state’s utility systems and establish ambitious clean energy standards.
- The legislation would require utilities to produce electricity using 100% clean energy by 2040, with intermediate goals of 50% by 2030 and 60% by 2035.
- Passage of the legislation could raise Whitmer’s national profile and potentially position her for a future bid for higher office.
In recent years, states have been competing to establish the most ambitious clean energy agendas. Now, Michigan, a seemingly unexpected Midwestern state, might be pulling ahead of climate champions like California, with its governor, Gretchen Whitmer, standing to benefit.
In the coming days, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) is expected to sign a raft of clean energy bills into law that would completely reform the state’s utility systems and cement the state as a leader in fighting climate change. The legislation, which passed the Michigan legislature earlier this month, would require utilities to produce electricity using 100% clean energy by 2040. This is one of the most ambitious standards in the Midwest and comparable to ones established in environmentally friendly states, such as California or New York.
If signed into law, the measure would enact deadlines that will gradually help the state reach its decarbonization goal, requiring utilities to generate 50% of their energy through renewable sources by 2030 and 60% by 2035. The legislation would also raise energy efficiency standards, allow more residents to enroll in rooftop solar energy programs, and grant state regulators authority over large-scale clean energy permitting.
Other provisions in the legislation would reform how the state’s regulatory agency, the Michigan Public Service Commission, will plan for future operations, requiring it to consider factors such as climate, equity, and affordability when creating long-term power generation plans. The legislation would also create an office aiding communities in transitioning from fossil fuel to clean energy jobs.
“With passage of these game-changing bills, Michigan will become a national leader on clean energy,” Whitmer said in a statement, touting that the bills will lower utility costs while reducing reliance on foreign energy sources.
More than half of the country already has laws or standards in place to require utilities to switch to clean energy, but only a handful require the transition to happen as quickly as the pace set by the Michigan legislation. Once signed into law, Michigan would transition to zero-emission energy sources even faster than California, which has set the standard for aggressive climate change action for decades.
“If you had asked me a year ago if we were going to get to this point, I might’ve not been as optimistic,” said Derrell Slaughter, a Michigan clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But I think it’s a real testament to the groups that really fought hard to get some significance out of this process.”
While many environmentalists acknowledged that passage of the legislation was a huge first step for the state, they noted they couldn’t get everything they wanted. Slaughter told the Washington Examiner that activists originally advocated a stricter renewable portfolio standard of 60% by 2030, a 100% clean energy standard by 2035, and tighter efficiency standards.
Furthermore, many environmentalists raised concerns about the inclusion of nuclear power and natural gas using carbon capture and storage technology as forms of clean energy. “Those are not things that we were advocating for but are in the final bill,” Slaughter said.
Republicans, on the other hand, fiercely opposed the legislation in both chambers, raising concerns the policies would increase energy costs and lower reliability without input from local communities. “This legislation is jam-packed with state mandates that will make family electric bills more expensive and create the very real possibility that the lights won’t turn on when those families go to flip the switch,” Senate Republican Leader Aric Nesbitt said in a statement earlier this month. “These bills represent a destructive force of government from which generations of farms and families will never recover.”
The expected passage of bold climate legislation in an industrial state like Michigan raises the national profile of Whitmer, who has made other moves to insert herself into the 2024 cycle without being an actual candidate herself. Whitmer sits as one of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign co-chairs, the only governor on the panel.
In June, she launched a federal political action committee, dubbed the “Fight Like Hell” PAC, to help raise money for 2024 Democratic candidates. Whitmer also headlined a major fundraising dinner for the Minnesota Democratic Party in October.
Much of the governor’s efforts have been centered on strengthening Democratic ties to Midwestern voters, an appealing message as the party struggles to maintain strongholds in the Rust Belt. It’s a platform that could catapult her into a bid for higher office, such as the White House, a possibility that she has ruled out for 2024 but has left the door open for later.
“How she positions herself is a pragmatic realist coming from a purple state,” said Tim Minotas, a deputy legislative and political director at the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter. “It shows that she can get a bold policy forward while working together in a bipartisan fashion in a state where it isn’t a completely Democratic stronghold, which I think kind of sets her out from the rest.”
However, the competition from other climate champions might be fierce, especially if Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) decides to enter the ring in 2028. Fitzpatrick notes, however, that the constituencies of both states remain starkly different and could work to Whitmer’s advantage, as Michigan stands to be more centrist than California.
“Whereas Gov. Newsom might focus more on emissions and environmental issues, I’m seeing a stronger emphasis from Gov. Whitmer on public health-related issues around climate and pollution but hitting really hard on the economics, on lowering costs, on bringing manufacturing to the state,” Fitzpatrick said. “And I think that plays well with a really broad set of important voters across the country.”
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s expected approval of a set of ambitious clean energy bills may be a strategic move to raise her national profile. The legislation, which would require utilities to produce 100% clean energy by 2040, would put Michigan ahead of even climate-focused states like California.
While environmentalists have concerns, Whitmer’s pragmatic approach to a bold policy in a purple state could position her for a future bid for higher office. However, competition from other climate champions, such as California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, may challenge Whitmer’s spotlight.
Regardless, Whitmer’s focus on public health and economic benefits of clean energy could resonate with crucial centrist voters.
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