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Denby High project hits milestone as Skinner Park takes shape in Detroit

What began three years ago in the classrooms of Detroit’s Denby High School—and the imaginations of its students—took a major step toward becoming reality this week.

Students, community organizations and business leaders gathered Monday for the official kickoff of a $1.5 million transformation of the unused playfield next to the school into a green space and community gathering place to be called Skinner Park.

When complete, the park will offer something for everyone. Replete with basketball and volleyball courts, a performing arts pavilion, and a putting green, the plan also includes several features to make the neighborhood more resilient and sustainable, including community vegetable gardens, a fruit orchard and a rainwater catchment system.

Life Remodeled, a Detroit nonprofit that recruits a huge volunteer workforce to revitalize a troubled city neighborhood each year, has selected Skinner Park and the surrounding Denby community as its focus for this summer. Along with work in the park, thousands of volunteers will remove blight and beautify 300 city blocks, renovate 50 homes and chart safe pathways to school, among other activities planned for August 1-6.

(Please consider signing up to be part of the volunteer workforce in the Denby neighborhood! You can register here.)

The Skinner Park renovation marks a significant milestone in a long-term project that challenges students to confront the city’s challenges and collaborate with local residents to make transformative improvements to their neighborhood.

The project was hatched in the 2013-2014 school year, when Denby students proposed focusing a required senior capstone project on the Detroit Future City (DFC) framework, which aims to stabilize neighborhoods, repurpose vacant land and put more Detroiters to work, among other goals.

Sandra Turner-Handy, MEC’s community engagement director, a Denby neighborhood resident and a DFC leader, was called in to guide seniors in understanding and implementing the framework and has been deeply committed to the project ever since. She leads the Denby Neighborhood Alliance—an intergenerational, student-and-resident collaboration for planning and action—and is known affectionately by students as “Mama Sandra.” Read more

Senate energy plan: Summer school needed to fix failing grades

The Michigan Senate is likely to vote this week on a pair of bills to reform our state’s energy policy. Throughout the debates leading up to this point, MEC has maintained that any credible strategy for Michigan’s energy future must accomplish five goals: control costs for utility customers; minimize the risks of future price spikes; protect natural resources and public health; promote economic development; and improve reliability.

Since it’s graduation season, we decided to use those goals as the basis for a report card on Senate Bills 437 and 438. (You can read this recent post for a more detailed analysis.)

Unfortunately, although they were recently revised, these bills still get failing grades. Without major changes, the Senate energy plan isn’t ready to graduate.

Report card for SB 437 and 438

Control costs. Michigan utility customers pay some of the highest rates in the Midwest. The current legislation would increase those costs by $4 billion over the next 10 years. The bills abandon the use of competition and the free market to control energy costs. They also repeal the renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that have been highly effective in reducing energy waste and controlling costs. This legislation would allow the utilities to hold on to the $120 million in renewable energy surcharges they don’t need, since renewables are now the cheapest energy sources.

Grade: F

Minimize risks.  Renewable energy is the cheapest electricity available from new facilities and offers fixed prices over a 20-year period because it is not dependent on fuel costs. However, these bills would scrap our wildly successful renewable energy standard. Utilities are guaranteed a profit of more than 10 percent on every dollar they spend to meet customer needs, but Michigan families and businesses will take on all the risks when those dollars are spent on utilities’ first choice—large, expensive new natural gas-fired power plants. Unfortunately, it seems many current legislators don’t remember when the per-unit price of natural gas skyrocketed from $2 to $15 between 2002 and 2005. By failing to lock in low and predictable long-term prices, these bills will put Michiganders at risk of sharp price spikes.

The bills would continue energy efficiency programs through 2021, which would reduce our overall need for energy and therefore reduce risks for ratepayers. Between 2009 and 2014, energy efficiency programs helped Michigan customers avoid the use of more than 6 million megawatt hours of electricity. The programs save Michiganders $4 for every dollar invested, a total savings of more than $100 million every year.

Grade: D

Protect natural resources and public health. Coal-fired power plants are the #1 source of air pollution in the country and are major contributors to climate change. Michigan’s renewable energy standard has helped to reduce our dependence on dirty coal, which provided two-thirds of our power when the standard was adopted and now provides only half. These bills will stall that progress by immediately repealing our renewable energy standard and phasing out our waste reduction programs over the next five years. Meanwhile, Michigan residents pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year to deal with the health impacts of dirty coal plants. Our asthma rate is 25 percent above the national average, and more than 100 Michiganders die prematurely from ailments tied to coal plant pollution.

The bills set a new goal for waste reduction and renewable energy, but the language is non-binding.

Grade: D-

Promote economic development. Michigan’s clean energy law triggered $2.9 billion in economic development in Michigan from 2008 to 2015. For the first time, our economy began to diversify beyond the automotive sector. We became a top state for clean energy patents. Energy efficiency service companies have sprouted up across the state. That growth is largely attributable to provisions in the 2008 law that half of renewable energy projects be built by private developers, rather than the utilities themselves, to promote competition and innovation. All of those benefits will go away under the current legislation. The bills would not only free the utilities from competing with other companies, but would also allow them to make money off energy they played no part in generating.

Grade: F

Improve reliability. The bills add new sections that attempt to ensure all energy providers have sufficient resources to serve their customers. It also recognizes that our regional grid operator is taking steps to improve overall reliability.

Unfortunately, the Senate package takes a step backward by hampering efforts to use time-of-day rates to take advantage of the advanced meters we have already paid for to reduce peak demand.

Grade: C-

With grades like these, it’s no surprise the Senate energy proposal faces stiff opposition from a broad range of players across the political spectrum. The Legislature breaks after this week for summer recess, but without major changes to these bills, it looks like summer school is in order.

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Top photo courtesy Theodore Scott via Flickr.

Other images adapted from photo by Jack Amick via Flickr.

‘No stricter than federal’ bill aims to make Michigan mediocre again

Our state has invested more than $260 million over the past decade in promoting tourism under the banner of “Pure Michigan.” A bill moving through the state House of Representatives would undermine that campaign by broadcasting the message that Michigan plans to do nothing more than the bare minimum when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes, our natural resources and the health of our residents.

The House Regulatory Reform Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that bars Michigan from passing any rule stricter than a federal standard unless the state can accomplish the daunting legal feat of proving such a rule is necessary.

House Bill 5613 is just the latest version of this “no stricter than federal” proposal, which now awaits action on the House floor. Gov. Snyder already vetoed a similar bill in 2011, and the same House committee failed to pass a different version of the bill last April.

This new iteration has the slight improvement of allowing the state to adopt stricter-than-federal rules if the governor can prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that such rules are necessary. (Unfortunately, that change also gives this misguided proposal the best chance of moving forward it’s had since the original 2011 bill.) But even with this exemption it is clear that approving the bill would be a big step backward for Michigan, for three major reasons: It takes away Michigan’s ability to be proactive in protecting our environment and quality of life; it would likely lead to sky-high legal costs for state taxpayers; and it cedes Michiganders’ right as a state to govern ourselves as we see fit, rather than following the whims and snail’s pace of the federal government.

Waiting for another crisis

In an attempt to downplay concerns about the impacts of this bill, its proponents have given examples of when the state could use the exemption to adopt a stricter-than-federal rule, including the Flint water crisis. But while we agree this extreme example certainly meets the bill’s clear and convincing evidence standard, we have serious doubts that the executive branch would be granted an exemption in similar circumstances without the benefit of hindsight. Read more

Three key questions in Michigan’s energy debate

The Senate Energy and Technology Committee continues to deliberate on a package of bills that lay out a misguided approach to Michigan’s energy future—one that would suspend Michigan’s transition to cleaner energy sources, lead to major rate increases for Michigan families and throw a wrench in economic development in our state.

During three weeks of hearings on the bills last summer, strong opposition from MEC and many other groups made it clear that Senate Bills 437 and 438, as introduced, did not have the support to move forward.  Bill sponsors Sens. Mike Nofs and John Proos went back to the drawing board, and introduced substitute versions of the bills in late April.

Nofs, who chairs the committee, recently announced he had the votes lined up, but he now appears to again be working on new drafts. Such a broad range of groups have voiced opposition—environmental groups, energy efficiency contractors, major corporations (including Steelcase, Whirlpool, Johnson Controls and others) and even the conservative group Americans for Prosperity—that it’s hard to imagine the bills moving out of  committee without significant  revisions. Similar bills cleared a House committee last fall but have languished on the House floor.

Throughout this process, the issue of “electric choice” has been a major point of debate. (The term refers to the 10 percent of the state’s electric load allowed to come from alternative electric suppliers, rather than from utilities.) That small slice of the energy pie has dominated much of the discussion and disagreement between major industrial facilities and the utilities.

While energy choice is an important issue, the debate should not lose sight of the other 90 percent of our energy. The focus there should be on answering three basic questions:  How do we generate electricity? Who gets to generate it? And how much should we generate?

How do we generate it?

The case for making renewable energy Michigan’s go-to source of electricity is growing stronger all the time. For example:

  • The latest Michigan Public Service Commission update on the state’s renewable energy programs found that wind energy now costs less than half as much as it did in 2009.  More importantly, it costs less than any other new generation built today.
  • The MPSC also reported that more than $2.9 billion has been invested in renewable energy projects in Michigan since 2008, helping to diversify Michigan’s economy.
  • Michigan’s clean energy sector supports 87,000 jobs, according to a recent report.

Even setting aside jobs and investment—and the huge cost savings from the avoided health impacts of air pollution—it’s clear that renewable energy sources offer the best bang for the buck.  And yet, the current legislation proposes eliminating the state’s renewable energy standard.

Michigan’s electric utilities and supportive legislators have often claimed we don’t need a renewable energy standard, like the current one which required them to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. The companies say they’ll invest in more renewable sources as costs come down. So, with wind and solar at record-low prices, the utilities must be buying up clean power like crazy, right?

Wrong. DTE Energy has told shareholders it will develop 100 megawatts of wind power in 2019, but that will result in a minuscule .2 percent increase in renewable energy per year. Similarly, Consumers Energy’s plans for three new, 100-megawatt wind farms over the next decade will only increase its renewable portfolio by .25 percent annually (in contrast to the nearly 1.5 percent per year they built to reach the 10 percent renewable standard).

That’s why MEC and a growing portion of the business sector are advocating for including language in the legislation to set a clear expectation that utilities will continue to transition to clean energy sources.  We have proposed language clarifying that, if renewable energy prices exceed the cost of building and operating new natural gas combined-cycle power plants, the utility’s obligation to invest in renewables would cease. MEC is encouraging legislators to approve the next phase of clean energy by increasing our current 10 percent standard by 1.5 percent each year from 2017 through 2022. Read more

Time to get serious about solving Michigan’s septic problem

Editor’s note: This post is by MEC intern Matthew McLaughlin

A story of infrastructure long forgotten is developing in Michigan. While we rank number one in the country for most dissatisfaction for road conditions, the recent tragedy in Flint has forced all Michigan citizens to consider the infrastructure that we don’t see. Here and in other states, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has led to neglect of water lines, municipal sewers and other infrastructure.

That neglect is especially apparent when it comes to on-site wastewater treatment systems, commonly known as septic systems, used by homes that are not connected to a centralized sewer system. Michigan has about 1.3 million septic systems in its rural areas and sprawling suburbs. Once septics are installed, many homeowners simply don’t remember to have them inspected, or even emptied, unless a problem occurs. This history of neglect has led to a widespread problem of failing systems.

Surprisingly, given the central role fresh water plays in our lifestyle and identity, Michigan is the only state without a law that specifically regulates septics. Eleven counties exercise some oversight of septics, including regular inspections, but they are unregulated in the remaining 72 counties. The state has attempted to address the problem multiple times, including in 2004 when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm created the On-Site Wastewater Treatment Systems Task Force. That year the task force released a white paper with recommendations for a statewide sanitary code regulating septics. To date, however, there has not been a legislative solution to the problem.

And it is a serious problem. Joan Rose, an expert in water microbiology, water quality and public health, and others at Michigan State University recently found that rivers in areas with high concentrations of septic systems have increased evidence of E. coli and B. theta, which are indicators of human waste. In fact, they found evidence of sewage in all 64 river systems that they sampled. The state’s water strategy, issued last year by the Department of Environmental Quality, estimated that 10 percent of the state’s septics—about 130,000 systems—are failing and leaking an astounding 31 million gallons of sewage every day into our rivers, lakes and ground water. That’s a conservative estimate, far lower than observed rates in other states. Read more

MEC staffer helps Traverse City schools harness the sun for energy and education

Editor’s note: Kate Madigan is MEC’s northern Michigan representative and climate and energy specialist.

Today I joined northern Michigan community leaders and Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) officials in a gym with 200 cheering elementary students to celebrate the completion of the first solar array installed on a school in Traverse City.

The morning started with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the 40 solar panels on the roof of Traverse Heights Elementary School that provide the school with sun-powered electricity, educational opportunities and much more.

“The solar panels are going to help fuel young minds and provide tangible ways to engage students in math and science, environmental stewardship and career exploration,” said Amy Six-King, principal of Traverse Heights Elementary School at the event. “We are appreciative of our community partners for their leadership in this effort, which provides our staff with a powerful tool to enhance teaching and learning.”

The leadership and can-do attitude of principal Six-King, who immediately saw the benefits to the school, were key to making this solar project happen.

This effort began more than a year ago when I got together with project leader Mary VanValin, a board member of the MEC member group Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and a retired TCAPS teacher, to write a grant proposal to put solar panels on the school. We worked with the TCAPS leadership team to come up with a plan and we quickly raised all the funds needed for the solar project.

“Excitement about solar energy is contagious,” VanValin said. “When we started talking about the clean energy benefits of solar power and the hands-on educational and cost-saving possibilities it can provide to a school, the community support for this project went through the roof.” Read more

With spring in the air, MEC is shaping a plan to protect pollinators

Editor’s note: This post is by MEC intern Teha Ames.

A serious problem that should not be overlooked by the state of Michigan and its residents is the decline of pollinator populations.  Pollinators include bees, butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds and other animals that help flowering plants reproduce by transferring pollen from plant to plant. Pollinator population declines have been linked to habitat loss, parasites, pathogens, pesticide exposure, climate change and other factors. A global assessment of pollinators published in February found a growing number of pollinators are threatened with extinction.

The services pollinators provide are essential for feeding the world and for supporting agricultural jobs. In 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum highlighting why honey bees and other pollinators are important in the United States. “Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States,” it noted. The memorandum also established a Pollinator Health Task Force between several government agencies to combat the problem. In its 2015 strategy to protect pollinators, the task force laid out three clear nationwide goals: reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 percent within 10 years; increase the eastern population of monarch butterflies (which includes Michigan’s monarchs) to 225 million by 2020; and restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years.

Since Obama issued the memorandum, several states have joined the fight for pollinator protection. One state that has not created a pollinator protection plan yet is Michigan. Fortunately, MEC and other supporting stakeholders are helping the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to create such a plan.Honey bee Read more

On retirement day for some old coal plants, bad state policies keep others limping along

You may have noticed a lot of news stories lately about coal-fired power plants. That’s because—with federal regulations kicking in to protect public health—today marks the end of the operating permits for a number of coal plants in Michigan, including Consumers Energy’s oldest generating units, sometimes charitably described as the “Classic Seven.”

It’s good news that these coal plants are retiring—good for our health, good for our climate and good for our pocketbooks. In 2008, when Michigan enacted clean energy laws, 66 percent of our electricity came from coal. Thanks to those laws, coal now supplies less than half our electricity. With a continued, steady increase in affordable renewable power and energy efficiency, we can shrink coal’s slice of the energy pie to 35 percent by 2020.

Unfortunately, even as they retire their oldest power plants, our large, investor-owned electric utilities are still clinging to dirty coal. DTE Energy, for example, still generates over 70 percent of its electricity from coal and continues to spend millions of dollars a year to keep old plants operating, heaping the costs onto Michigan families.

And sadly, our Legislature is doing nothing to protect Michigan residents from skyrocketing energy bills or the public health impacts of dirty coal plants. Read more

MEC’s five-year fight for clean air ends with major win for Michigan families

This week brought a long-fought, hard-won victory for MEC—and anyone who breathes Michigan’s air.

On Monday, the Department of Environmental Quality announced that—in response to strong pushback from environmental advocates and the public—it is dropping a plan to deregulate air emissions of some 500 toxic chemicals.

This is a major win for clean air and public health in Michigan. Had DEQ gone through with the rule change, it would have allowed unchecked air emissions of about 250 chemicals that have never been tested for their impact on human health and could be cancer-causing. It also would have deregulated emissions of another 250 or so chemicals that, while not carcinogenic, are known to be somewhat toxic, allowing polluters to emit them in any quantity—despite the fact that even mildly toxic chemicals can have serious health impacts if people are exposed at high enough levels.

Among other arguments against the proposal, we warned that it ignored the science of toxic chemical exposure, and that it would deal a disproportionately heavy blow to the health of low-income residents and communities of color. You can find more details about the proposed rule change and our objections to it here.

“The DEQ’s decision to continue regulating these chemicals is consistent with the best available science on the health risks of exposure to toxic substances, and it’s the right decision for Michigan residents,” MEC Policy Director James Clift said in our press release praising the decision. “We hope this is a sign that the department is putting its focus back where it belongs, on protecting Michigan’s environment and the health of people who live here.”

At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, this victory is the direct result of MEC’s hard work. It’s also a good illustration of how MEC goes about protecting Michigan’s environment. Furthermore, it underscores the crucial role played by our financial supporters, who give us the resources to stick with an issue over the long-haul.

Here’s the successful formula that added up to a clean-air victory:

We were at the table early. The proposal to deregulate air toxics came from a Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs work group charged with paring down the state’s list of thousands of environmental rules by cutting unnecessary and redundant regulations. Thanks to his reputation as one of the top environmental policy experts in Lansing, MEC’s James Clift was appointed to that group. The proposal to loosen air toxics rules was among many that James opposed, but because of business support, it nonetheless made it into the group’s final recommendations to the Snyder administration in 2011. Read more

With lead in the spotlight, MEC-led coalition calls for more state funding to protect kids

A lot can change in five years.

MEC Health Policy Director Tina Reynolds convened lead advocates in 2010 to form the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH) because lead poisoning received almost no attention in Lansing, despite being a completely preventable condition and one whose health effects cannot be reversed once a child is exposed.

During the coalition’s first Lead Education Day at the state Capitol, Reynolds and allies were met with puzzled faces from many lawmakers who thought the lead problem was solved when lead-based paint was banned in 1978. (About 70 percent of Michigan’s housing stock was built before that ban, so thousands of our state’s children are still exposed each year to lead from paint in older homes.)

Wednesday’s fifth annual Lead Education Day, however, came at a time when lead poisoning could hardly be a more prominent issue.

The LG weighs in

The poisoning of Flint children from lead in corrosive city water is a profound tragedy and a staggering failure of government to protect public health. It also has put an unprecedented spotlight on lead issues, providing a must-seize moment to face Michigan’s lead problem head-on.

“Now it’s something everybody is thinking about,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who kicked off Lead Education Day with remarks to the nearly 50 MIALSH members from all over the state who braved a snowstorm to meet in Lansing with legislators and urge increased state investment in successful lead-abatement programs. “I think it is time that we set some very ambitious or bold goals when it comes to eradication. We have an open door here.” Read more