Three Things Cities Need in Our New Energy Policy

Governor Rick Snyder speaking

Governor Rick Snyder (photo via Michigan Municipal League)

In 2008, Michigan rewrote its energy policy, implementing our first requirement for renewable energy generation and creating the “energy optimization” program, which utilities used to support energy efficiency programs. That package set a number of 2015 targets, and the Legislature is primed to update our state’s strategy in light of this looming deadline.

Arguably, the 2008 energy package has been a great success for Michigan. Our utilities are on track to meet or exceed their goals for renewable energy; and we’ve substantially reduced energy waste through efficiency programs. We should be building on this progress, creating a cleaner and brighter energy future for the state.

There’s a lot of opportunity in this restructuring of our energy policy, and the debate is already hot. Governor Snyder recently delivered a special message to the Legislature on this subject. The week before, Representative Aric Nesbitt, Chair of the House Energy Policy Committee, outlined his caucus’s goals included in the first bill package. Neither proposal, however, looks very closely at the role that local governments play in leading and supporting a clean energy economy.

Local governments are a unique kind of consumer in the energy world. Keeping the costs of government high results in a higher tax burden for either businesses and residents, or in reductions in other important services. Nobody wins when governments are wasting money and energy. As Lansing’s leaders hunker down with the lawyers and lobbyists, here’s a few things we hope they’ll all keep in mind.

Accelerate LED Streetlight Upgrades

Streetlights offer the quickest route to energy waste reduction in municipalities. Lighting is often a community’s biggest energy expense, and one of its most essential. It is a critical component of our public safety infrastructure. However, most of the streetlights in Michigan are several generations behind the best technology. LED lighting uses half or less of the energy and requires much less maintenance than conventional mercury-vapor lamps. Not to mention pedestrians and drivers like their bright white light better too.

Upgrading to LEDs has been fraught with challenges the Legislature should tackle. In most communities, utilities own and operate the lights, and they generate the energy they use. Lights are frequently only upgraded when the law requires it . . . or when communities foot the bill. In the end, municipalities are left with little control but all the expense.

Michigan communities want street lighting tariffs that rewards investment in energy efficiency. The Legislature should separate the controls over production and consumption; providing communities a clear path to take ownership of their lighting and get control over their energy bills.

Create a Public Facilities Energy Strategy

In the metro Detroit region alone, local governments could save hundreds of millions of dollars by upgrading their facilities—from police stations to water treatment plants to recreation centers—with high-performing energy technology. Most of these projects would pay for themselves over reasonable periods of time. For example, solar hot water systems typically save as much as they cost in about six years. The challenge is in the planning. Communities can go about this work haphazardly, but a smart strategy makes every dollar do extra duty. The best way to tackle this is to ensure that every community has a comprehensive energy management plan. The new energy bill should require municipal energy plans in the same way that communities are required to prepare master plans for land use.

To guard against Headlee unfunded mandates, the bill should also provide a funding mechanism. It costs $5,000 – $25,000 to put together a solid energy strategy—about $20 million statewide. The energy bill should allow the Michigan Public Service Commission to set up a fund for this work with a small, one-time surcharge and to oversee the development of municipal energy strategies.

Help Muni’s Regulate Better Locally

Governor Snyder has proposed a new energy code for buildings that could reduce waste by some 25 percent. We love this! We know that homes and businesses can all save a lot more energy, and there’s no way we should be building anything new that isn’t energy-optimized. Our local planners and building inspectors will be the ones on the front lines implementing the new standards if they are adopted. We’re going to need solid training programs and a fee and fine structure that really lets them do their jobs.

On the renewables front, local governments are responsible for issuing the permits that businesses and residences need for safe and accessible installation. Solar is technically and financially viable in Michigan now, but the largest cost barrier is the “soft costs”: the procedures that cities must administer to facilitate adoption. We need to help local governments adopt uniform best practices, revisit planning and zoning ordinances and streamline permitting processes, as outlined in the Michigan Solar Ready Communities guide, so that installers have consistent, easy and low-cost policies to navigate in every locale. This would help unlock the growing local jobs and economic development possible through solar adoption.

Local governments can play an exciting role in achieving Michigan’s energy goals. Our communities are trusted messengers to our residents and lead by example—but we need some help from Lansing: the power to control our own costs, support for visionary planning, and the authority to ensure our communities are leading the way to a bright new energy future.