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Latest headlines show renewable energy going mainstream

I start most mornings at MEC by browsing the day’s environmental headlines, mainly from email newsletters that I highly recommend—Midwest Energy News, InsideClimate News, Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate and Food and Environment Reporting Network, among others—so I’m used to seeing plenty of promising news about the rise of renewable energy.

But the past few days have been exceptional, energy news-wise. One story after another has driven home the reality that a future powered primarily by clean energy is not far off. It wasn’t so long ago that wind and solar were seen as feel-good gimmicks for the tree-hugging fringe, but those days are gone. You don’t hear them called “alternative energy” much anymore. Renewables have gone mainstream.

That’s good, because we need to shift away from fossil fuels, fast. Last year was the hottest ever recorded, marking three consecutive years of record-breaking warmth. (To see how much warmer than average your hometown was last year, check out this cool tool.)

Here are some of the renewable energy stories that grabbed my attention over the past few days.

Surge in solar installations

The news: New solar photovoltaic installations in the U.S. totaled a record 14.6 gigawatts in 2016. That’s almost twice what was installed in 2015, which was itself a record year.

Why it’s a big deal: For the first time, solar was the largest source of new electric generating capacity nationwide. It made up 39 percent of new capacity, more than natural gas (29 percent) or wind (26 percent). To be clear, capacity is how much electricity a power source is capable of producing, and is different from generation, which is how much power actually gets produced. Solar was still less than 1 percent of U.S. generation in 2015, though experts expect that number to double by the end of this year and continue growing steadily.

“What these numbers tell you is that the solar industry is a force to be reckoned with,” says Abigail Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Solar’s economically winning hand is generating strong growth across all market segments.”

 

Wind power sets a record

The news: For a short time on the morning of Feb. 12, wind power met more than half of electric demand for the region of 14 Western and Midwest states whose grid is overseen by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP). Read more

Proposed school closings could include Denby High, a community hub and catalyst for transformation in Detroit

As I entered the school last week I noticed a quiet I had never associated with this building. The usually boisterous students moved almost silently from one class to another. I missed the normal yelling and jostling of my young people at Denby High School. A student in the hallway asked me, “Ms. Sandra, do you know they are going to close our school?”

Sadly, I do. While the graduation rate at Denby has been steadily rising, test scores remain low. As a result, the state School Reform Office listed Denby among 38 schools that could be shuttered. Standing in the hallway, I realized that this silence might become the new normal.

Closing Denby would mean the end of what has become a hub for a Detroit community—one where students and residents have worked together to move beyond vacant land and buildings, overgrown foliage, flooding, crime and a lack of amenities, and have begun the transformation to a clean, safe and healthy community.

More than just an innovative approach to education, the model we pioneered at Denby is a way to build more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods with improved access to fresh food, more opportunities for healthy outdoor recreation and residents who are more empowered to advocate for the health of their neighborhood and their families. It’s about creating healthier, more sustainable communities—that’s why the Michigan Environmental Council has been a strong supporter.

I had hoped to expand our work at Denby to other schools and neighborhoods in Detroit, but now that looks doubtful.

Where education meets engagement

Over the past three years, I have been honored to help lead a project at Denby that connected students to their neighborhood and the future of their city, merging academic learning with community activism. Through this project, Denby students learned about Detroit’s history, its current challenges and the impact of the built environment on education and economic opportunity. Read more

Making connections and moving forward at MEC’s legislative breakfast

Good food, good conversation and a good turnout—despite an overnight snowstorm—made the Michigan Environmental Council’s legislative breakfast on Tuesday perhaps our best yet.

We host this gathering at the House Office Building in Lansing at the beginning of each legislative session to welcome new and returning lawmakers and their staff, and provide an opportunity for them and other state officials to meet with staff from MEC and our member groups across the state.

The legislative breakfast also gives MEC an opportunity to introduce our updated policy agenda. Our latest policy priorities include testing all children for lead exposure, passing a statewide code for septic systems and becoming the first state east of the Mississippi River to open an Office of Outdoor Recreation. You can learn more about our policy agenda in our press release, or dive right into our priorities here.

Based on remarks from four speakers at the breakfast, we can look forward to continuing our solid working relationships with legislative leaders and administration officials who share many of our priorities. Read more

Big win for the Great Lakes: Schuette says no to fish farms in public waters

MEC and allies have argued for more than two years that commercial fish farms have no place in our Great Lakes. This week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette agreed.

“In an opinion released Tuesday, Schuette said net-pen aquaculture operators would have to register with the state, and laws related to aquaculture don’t permit registration of such facilities in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters,” the Associated Press reports.

While Ontario has allowed some fish farms along its Lake Huron shoreline, they have not been permitted in Michigan or other Great Lakes states. When proposals emerged for net-pen operations near Rogers City and Escanaba, MEC and a number of partners researched the risks, identified serious environmental and economic concerns and mounted a strong opposition.

“The Great Lakes are an irreplaceable resource that we must carefully steward, not only for our use but for future generations,” Schuette tells Michigan Distilled. “It is a priority of mine to protect these waters. The professional work relationship the MEC has provided, along with their expertise, has helped me carry out my duties on such issues as this important opinion on aquaculture.”

Schuette’s opinion was the latest in a series of statements from state officials sharing our view that net-pen aquaculture is too risky for the Great Lakes.

  • The MIRS newsletter reported (subscription required) Jan. 3 that Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, “doesn’t envision a day when commercial net pen aquaculture would be allowed by Michigan in the Great Lakes.”
  • Last March, three state agencies recommended against allowing aquaculture in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters, citing serious environmental and economic risks identified by MEC and partners. The recommendation came a few weeks after statewide polling found nearly seven in 10 Michiganders were against opening the state’s Great Lakes waters to fish farming. Read more

Guest post: Make your holiday celebration more sustainable!

Editor’s note: This post is by Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, an MEC member group.

The festivity of the holiday season is upon us. No doubt you’ve already begun to stock up on goodies for the various gatherings and the more subdued and cozy time you’ll have at home. It’s likely you’re still shopping.

You probably have a sense of it already, but did you know that in general we throw away 25 percent more trash during the holidays? It’s really not that surprising when you consider the entertaining, gift giving and travel.

It’s not my intention to make you feel guilty about any of it. The holidays are an important reminder of our humanity and connection to others. I do think, however, that it’s important to think about the waste that will come from all this. Many of us aren’t in that habit, and much of that waste is likely to be with us for a long time.

You can help change that. Consider being the person at your holiday gathering who organizes the piles for recycling, suggests a new gift-giving strategy now that the kids have grown up, or organizes a joint donation to a worthy charity. There are truly a variety of ways to reduce your environmental impact without lessening the fun!

Here are some holiday waste reduction reminders:

  • Practice sustainable habits when serving your holiday feast. Buy only what you need, buy food with minimal packaging, compost any food scraps, and serve food on reusable dishes.
  • Buy local. Consider the environmental impact of shipping goods.
  • Give a consumable gift and support local artisans. Local cheese, spirits and other goodies can be shared too.
  • Give an experience. Instead of giving a material gift, give an experience such as concert tickets, cooking classes, fitness classes, sports events, or a museum membership.
  • Re-gift or host a white elephant gift exchange. There’s no shame in putting something to good use.
  • Don’t forget to bring reusable bags on holiday shopping excursions, and when wrapping gifts use newspaper, old maps or reusable textiles.
  • When purchasing gifts, give some thought to what will happen to that item when it is used up. Can it be recycled? Can it be reused?
  • Want a unique gift idea? Give a gift that will be around for years. Give the gift of a tree. By planting a tree for your neighbor, friend or relative, you will be showing how much you care for them and for our environment.
  • Celebrating Christmas? Don’t forget to recycle your tree! Many cities offer curbside Christmas tree recycling. Check with your city or town’s sanitation department to see if this is available to you.
  • Make a resolution to recycle and compost more. Start building your recycling pile with used newspapers, magazines and junk mail, and make an effort to recycle harder-to-recycle items such as batteries and old electronics.

Thanks for making your celebration more sustainable. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

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Photo courtesy ohsohappytogether via Flickr.

 

Michigan’s energy overhaul: What’s in it and how we got here

After more than two years of negotiations, countless hours of committee hearings, numerous variations on several bills, untold column inches of news coverage and a dizzying series of false starts, dead ends and shifts of the political winds, the epic effort to overhaul Michigan’s energy policy finally drew to a close Thursday evening.

Folks, we have a deal.

Here are highlights of the final package, which Gov. Snyder has said he will sign into law.

  • Requires utilities to ramp up their use of renewable energy from their current level of 10 percent to 12.5 percent by 2019, and 15 percent by 2021.  Once a utility achieves or exceeds 15 percent renewable energy, they cannot reduce that level of commitment unless they demonstrate it is in the best interest of ratepayers.
  • Creates a new program for customers who want more—or all—of their electricity to come from renewable sources. The Public Service Commission is tasked with establishing a new rate under this program.
  • Sets a goal of meeting 35 percent of Michigan’s energy needs through renewable power and energy efficiency by 2025.
  • Maintains the requirement that utilities reduce energy waste by at least 1 percent each year, lifts a cap on how much they can invest in waste reduction programs and increases financial incentives available to utilities for going above and beyond the energy efficiency standard.
  • Maintains, for now, the “net metering” program that allows customers to reduce their energy bills by generating power at home. The bills also abandon, for now, an earlier proposal for an arbitrary “grid access fee” on net metering customers, and instead tasks the Michigan Public Service Commission with designing a new rate structure for net metering customers in the future.  The new rate design will be crafted through a public process over the next year, and then be implemented in the spring of 2019 at the earliest.  A new rate design could combine net metering with time-of-use pricing—in which electricity is more expensive at times of higher demand—to better reflect the value of energy when it is generated and used.
  • Requires utilities to undertake “Integrated Resource Planning” to guide their investments so they meet long-term energy demand at the least cost. These plans would go through extensive review and compare both generation and demand management options to meet future demand.

As MEC President Chris Kolb said in a statement to the media, “These bills are a vast improvement over earlier proposals and will keep Michigan’s energy policy moving in the right direction…This deal will save millions of dollars a year for Michigan residents by continuing to eliminate energy waste and increasing investments in wind and solar power, which are the cheapest ways to produce electricity.”

And while we would have loved a deal that accelerated Michigan’s transition to clean energy, a review of the negotiations that led us here makes it clear that things could have been much, much worse. This is an important victory.

What follows is a summary of the major milestones on the road to the energy deal. As you’ll see, MEC has been at the table from the very beginning—thanks to our generous supporters—and our policy pros have worked relentlessly to win the best possible deal for Michigan’s energy future.

How we got here

May, 2014 – Sen. Mike Nofs announces Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Workgroup.

MEC Policy Director James Clift is named to this panel charged with reviewing Michigan’s 2008 clean energy laws and recommending updates. Those laws required Michigan utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2015 and achieve annual energy savings through efficiency measures. The workgroup meets throughout the summer of 2014.

July, 2014 – “Energy Freedom” bill package drops. Read more

DEQ delays final mine decision, sets stage for a nasty holiday gift

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week delayed its expected decision on a permit for the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold, zinc and copper mine proposed for the western Upper Peninsula. Back in September, the agency indicated in a preliminary decision its intent to approve the request from Aquila Resources, opening a final window for the public to weigh in before the final decision set for Dec. 1. The deadline for that final decision has now been pushed back to Dec. 29.

Ho, ho, ugh. If approved, this permit would be a terrible Christmas gift to the people of Michigan, far worse than a lump of coal.

Our review reveals that Aquila’s permit application is deeply flawed, endangers nearby waters held sacred by local Native Americans, fails to meet requirements in state law and therefore should be rejected.

And while the extended decision deadline does not necessarily mean the agency is open to hearing more comments—officially, public comment on the proposed decision ended Nov. 3—we hope you’ll let your elected leaders and the DEQ hear about it anyway. A state review this half-hearted should land the agency’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals squarely on your naughty list.

Below are just few of the problems we found in our review. Our full comments can be found online here.

Alternatives not explored

For starters, Aquila is required by law to describe “feasible and prudent” alternatives that were considered as part of its Environmental Impact Analysis. Aquila provides no such analysis regarding their choice to create—and later backfill with reactive materials—a large, open mine pit on the banks of the Menominee River.  They offer just a 107-word justification with no description or analysis of any alternative approaches.

Menominee gathering

Members of Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe oppose the mine.

Worse, the rationale that is provided for dismissing alternatives is based solely on the applicant’s own economic considerations, not the long-term risks and tradeoffs related to environmental or natural resource concerns.

Similarly, Aquila proposed to process the ore onsite, including using cyanide treatment and flotation techniques to separate the valuable materials from the “waste” material. So why did Aquila not analyze an alternative mining approach in which the ore is removed immediately and processed at an offsite location away from the banks of the Menominee River? Apparently, that approach offers less profit. Or, in Aquila’s own words, “the cost for ore shipment to off-site facilities is not sustainable for the project value.”

Last time we checked, economic considerations alone—i.e., the applicant’s profit motives—are not sufficient to dismiss potential alternatives in an Environmental Impact Assessment. And yet, that approach is apparently good enough for the Michigan DEQ.

Analyzing alternatives—whether it’s the decision to use an open pit approach instead of an underground tunnel, or to process onsite instead of taking reactive materials offsite to be processed—is among the most basic requirements of state mining law in terms of “minimizing actual or potential adverse impacts.” Aquila’s lack of consideration of alternatives alone should justify a denial of the permit as proposed.

Scant details

Beyond failing to explore alternatives, Aquila’s application and the DEQ’s proposed permit also just leave too much of the actual mine plan up in the air. And—here’s the real cause for concern—the DEQ seems to be OK with that.

This permitting process is the department’s opportunity to judge, on behalf of Michigan residents, the rigor and seriousness of the company’s plans to minimize the environmental impacts of its proposed mine. Yet, the DEQ’s proposed permit allows Aquila to sail through the process, even without basic plans and documents that the company has had more than a decade to prepare. The state seems willing to grant the permit first, and then ask the company for fundamental information about how they plan to operate the mine safely.

Here are a few examples:

  • The proposed permit says the mining company “shall submit a plan…to monitor surface water and aquatic biota” and receive written approval of the plan from the DEQ before beginning mine operations. We can’t help but wonder why Aquila does not already have in place a plan for such a basic environmental safeguard. There needs to be a robust plan in place not only before the mining starts, but before any permit is granted.
  • Lake sturgeon

    The Menominee River provides vital spawning habitat for lake sturgeon.

    The permit requires Aquila to perform tests before building a “cut-off wall” to demonstrate that it is capable of keeping contaminated water out of the Menominee River, which is just 150 feet away. But it then lays out steps the company must take, “If the results of monitoring…indicate that the cut-off wall is ineffective for its intended purpose.” Preventing harm to the Menominee River—spawning ground for half of Lake Michigan’s lake sturgeon—should be a fundamental component of any permit for this mine. It’s no place for improvisation.

  • The department says “the permittee shall conduct a water withdrawal evaluation” before construction, “If withdrawal of water from the pit and water supply wells will exceed a cumulative total of over 100,000 gallons of water per day when averaged over a consecutive 30-day period.” If Aquila plans to withdraw significant amounts of water for its mine, the DEQ should require the company to demonstrate it won’t harm local stream flows and ecology before granting a permit, not after.
  • Similarly, the department says that, if monitoring shows that water withdrawals for the mine might impact groundwater levels, Aquila “shall submit a plan to MDEQ to prevent that potential impact.” If groundwater impacts are sufficiently likely that the DEQ mentions it in the proposed permit, shouldn’t the company just go ahead and submit that plan before a permit is granted? We think so.

These are by no means isolated examples of the DEQ’s “wait and see” approach to the Back Forty. The department’s proposed permit contains the phrase “prior to construction” no fewer than six times in reference to designs, plans and techniques that are yet to be supplied. It includes the phrase “shall submit” in relation to non-existent plans or specific engineering designs at least five additional times.

Violation of statute

Early in May of this year, the DEQ sent a letter to Aquila with 196 questions or requests for additional information about a wide variety of data, plans and techniques. A month later, the company responded with a letter of its own, prepared by a consultant. Many of the answers—maybe most—were ambiguous at best. Yet, the DEQ seems satisfied with these halfhearted responses.

For example, the department requested—reasonably and clearly—that Aquila provide a cyanide management plan as part of its permit application. The company’s response? “A more detailed Cyanide Management Plan will be provided prior to construction.” Rather than demanding that plan be provided before approving the permit, the DEQ rolled over and said, basically: OK, just send it to us before you start mining. There are many other examples of this ridiculous, hands-off regulatory approach in the proposed permit.

Bottom line, our DEQ is proposing to grant the permit for a major open pit mine—one that would unearth and expose millions of tons of acid-generating material and place it in a giant open pit adjacent to a magnificent river—without requiring even basic, common-sense details about how, or if, the plans and techniques being proposed will work.

Rafting Menominee

The Menominee River is a popular rafting destination.

By our read, this is a clear violation of Michigan statute, which states that the mining, reclamation, and environmental protection plan for any proposed mining operation must include both “a description of materials, methods, and techniques that will be utilized,” and (with our emphasis added) “information that demonstrates that all methods, materials, and techniques proposed to be utilized are capable of accomplishing their stated objectives in protecting the environment and public health.”

This DEQ mining permit is one of several approvals Aquila will need before moving forward. The project also requires a state air permit, a wetland permit and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. But the mining permit is the heart and soul of the project—the only reason the company would need to seek the other approvals.

This is a major project with huge implications, not just for Michigan and our immediate neighbors in Wisconsin, but for the Great Lakes region overall. There are very few sulfide-based mines permitted in the region, so each new one that gets reviewed essentially sets a new precedent, a new standard. The least the DEQ can do is hold every project to the highest standards required in law, and to demand information adequate to really judge the project’s impacts on Michigan’s land, water, people and communities.

We hope the DEQ carefully reviews all the comments and decides to deny the permit. That would be a real Christmas gift to the people and amazing natural resources of our state. But given their track record with sulfide mining, we’re not optimistic.

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Top photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.
Menominee Tribe photo: Environmental Health News.
Juvenile sturgeon photo: USFWS via Flickr.
Rafting photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.

Gov. Snyder appoints MEC president Kolb to public health panel

Michigan Environmental Council President Chris Kolb was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder last week to a 24-member Public Health Advisory Commission.

Kolb will represent nonprofit environmental and health organizations on the panel, which is charged with completing an assessment of Michigan’s public health delivery system at the state and local level. The commission will issue a final report to the governor by April 1, 2017.

“It is an honor to serve on this commission alongside a wide range of state officials, medical professionals, public health experts and others who share my commitment to making Michigan a safe, healthy place for all residents,” Kolb said. “I look forward to working together and finding ways to ensure that public health programs are coordinated and effective in serving our state’s most vulnerable residents.”

Snyder also appointed Kolb in 2015 to co-chair the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, which investigated the city’s drinking water crisis, found state-appointed emergency managers and the Department of Environmental Quality chiefly responsible and provided recommendations to prevent similar disasters statewide.

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Four overlooked issues for National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week

This is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which aims to raise awareness to reduce childhood exposure to lead.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Michiganders may be more aware of the hazards of lead than ever before. Still, we’ve got a lot of work to do. In 2014, more than 5,000 children in Michigan had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter. That’s the level at which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends public health action to protect children, but the CDC says there is no safe level of exposure to lead. The true number of lead-afflicted children in Michigan is likely much higher, since only 20 percent of children under six years old were tested in 2014.

We’ve written quite a lot here about lead poisoning in Michigan and our work to make it a thing of the past. You can find useful background here, here and here.

Since we’ve covered the basics in previous posts, we thought we’d mark this prevention week by highlighting some lead-related issues that don’t get much attention:

Don’t get tricked by toxic treats.

With Halloween coming up next week, it’s good to be aware of a largely overlooked source of lead exposure: imported candy. The Food and Drug Administration says children and pregnant women should not eat candy imported from Mexico, which may be contaminated by lead in wrappers or through improper manufacturing practices. Candy from China, the Philippines and other countries may also contain trace amounts of lead. The federal government reports that, in California, 15 percent of childhood lead poisoning cases can be traced to tainted candy.

We don’t want to needlessly stoke fears. Halloween is fun, and you’ve got enough to worry about it. Just stick to candy produced in the U.S.

We need more cleanup contractors. Read more

Former MEC staffer is driving force behind ambitious plan for regional transit in Southeast Michigan

Ben Stupka is tired. That’s no surprise—he and his wife, Laura, have a two-year-old son and a daughter born in August.

But there’s another reason Stupka yearns for a nap. When he isn’t changing diapers or reading bedtime stories, he has another baby to nurture.

As Planning and Financial Analysis Manager for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan, Stupka led the development of a master plan to finally provide coordinated, high-quality public transportation for Metro Detroit, which today is widely recognized as one of the most transit-poor major cities in the country. A ballot measure in November will ask voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties to fund the plan with a 1.2 mill property tax over 20 years.

Now Stupka—along with MEC and many partners in Southeast Michigan—is working to engage and educate the public about the benefits of rapid, reliable, regional transit.

Obvious need

That part is relatively easy, Stupka says, because the shortcomings of the current system are so clear.

Metro Detroiters spend $69 a year per capita to support public transportation. In Atlanta, it’s $119. Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul spend $177. Seattle: $471. “We have fundamentally underfunded transit in this region,” Stupka says. “The results of that are pretty obvious.”

Nearly three quarters of people who work in the City of Detroit live outside the city limits, yet direct bus service between downtown and the suburbs is available only for six hours on weekdays, and not at all on weekends. The lack of coordination between the region’s transit providers means some commuters have to change buses at county lines. Detroit and Ann Arbor are completely disconnected by transit. The list goes on.

Ben Stupka

Ben Stupka

“Anybody who’s been anywhere with a good transit system looks around and says, ‘It’s so strange that we don’t have this,’” Stupka says

Some residents say they won’t use the improved transit services, but Stupka sees a light bulb go on when he tells them to think about their aging parents who might not be able to drive much longer, or nurses working third shift at Beaumont Hospital without a car. Others start to pay attention when he notes that transit projects typically return $4 for every $1 invested. “And frankly, with some people it’s, ‘Wouldn’t you love to go to a Tigers game and have a couple beers and not worry about driving home?’” Read more