The Battle Over Where To Put Renewable Energy Resources Comes To Rural Michigan

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Renewable energy is vital to decarb0nizing the electricity that powers virtually all human endeavors. But renewables threaten the traditional thermal generation process that relies on coal, methane gas, oil, and nuclear fuel. Those industries believe they have a God-given right to destroy the Earth’s environment in order to continue doing business as usual. States and the federal government put highways, generating plants, airports, oil refineries, pipelines, chemical factories, and the like wherever they think they should go, often using the power of eminent domain to acquire the land and no one raises a peep of protest. It’s progress, after all.

But when it comes to where to put renewable energy installations, suddenly the neighbors are marching on city hall with torches and pitchforks looking to unload their wrath on local officials. It doesn’t matter that their neighbors might benefit from the income the derive from the solar panels or wind turbines on their land. For a hundred years, private property owners have received lucrative payments for allowing oil and gas exploration companies to drill and frack on their property without a peep of protest, but let a solar panel appear and all hell breaks loose.

Renewable Energy & NIMBY

Is there a connection to all this hate and fear directed at renewables? We reported last week on what is going on in Kansas, where Donna and Robert Knoche, both in their 90s, wanted to install solar panels on their land to help provide them with enough income to enjoy their retirement years after 9 decades of ceaseless toil. Suddenly a firestorm of bitter protest swept over their community. Local meetings became screaming matches, promoted by so-called “grassroots” organizations that use signage and language that is often identical to those suggested by a group calling itself Citizens For Responsible Solar.

“I think for years, there has been this sense that this is not all coincidence. That local groups are popping up in different places, saying the same things, using the same online campaign materials,” Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told USA Today.

Citizens for Responsible Solar seems to be a well-mobilized “national effort to foment local opposition to renewable energy,” Burger adds. “What that reflects is the unfortunate politicization of climate change, the politicization of energy, and, unfortunately, the political nature of the energy transition, which is really just a necessary response to an environmental reality.”

Citizens for Responsible Solar was founded in an exurb of Washington, D.C. by a longtime political operative named Susan Ralston who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush and still has deep ties to power players in conservative politics. Ralston tapped conservative insiders to help set up and run Citizens for Responsible Solar. She also consulted with a longtime activist against renewable energy who once defended former president Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that noise from wind turbines can cause cancer.

When Ralston was launching the group, a consulting firm she owns got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation of a leading GOP donor who is also a major investor in fossil fuel companies. It’s unclear what the money to Ralston’s firm was used for. Ralston has previously denied that Citizens for Responsible Solar received money from fossil fuel interests.

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Renewable Energy Siting In Michigan

This week in Michigan, a similar “grassroots” campaign is attempting to promote a ballot initiative to undo a state law passed last year that allows siting decisions for renewable energy projects to be made at the state, not the local, level. Proponents of the legislation say it’s a crucial step for moving solar developments forward at the pace needed for the state to meet targets under Michigan’s MI Healthy Climate plan. Opponents say the law flies in the face of Michigan’s tradition of local control over land use decisions.

Planet Detroit on February 8, 2024 published a story that says while ballot supporters are framing the initiative as a grassroots effort, a report from the watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute points to several connections between the ballot initiative leaders and  fossil fuel industry.

Leading the charge initiative is Kevon Martis, a Lenawee County commissioner, who is a spokesperson for the Citizens for Local Choice ballot initiative and Our Home, Our Voice, a nonprofit started last year. In a letter to the Detroit News in January, Martis argued statewide control over renewable siting undermined local control, saying “residents may have to drive hours to attempt to speak to unelected bureaucrats, let alone convince them about what they believe is best for their hometown.”

But the Energy And Policy Institute report says what Martis calls a “grassroots effort” has received messaging help from the Marketing Resource Group, a public relations firm that has represented the Wolverine Pipeline Company for decades. Wolverine is jointly controlled by Mobil Pipe Line Company, Sunoco Pipeline L.P., and others. Members of the group have assisted Martis in drafting his ballot initiative according to Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for EPI.

Martis is a senior policy fellow at the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, previously known as the American Tradition Institute, which has received backing from coal companies. One former fellow at ATI, John Droz Jr., worked with the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council on a nationwide campaign to fight wind projects.

In 2012, Martis went to a national coordinating meeting for anti-wind activists and climate change deniers from fossil fuel industry-backed groups. Martis said in a meeting document that his goals were repealing Michigan’s renewable energy portfolio standard and seeking funding for lobbying efforts in Lansing.

Sharp-eyed readers will instantly notice that Koch Industries is lurking in the margins of this battle. Its principal, Charles Koch, has been the moving force behind the campaign to return America to a plantation society where the rich rule with impunity and the rest of us shut up and do what we are told. He has promoted such organizations as the Heritage Society and dozens of other extreme right wing organizations. The Federalist Society, whose mission is to install right wing nut jobs as federal judges like those who crafted the Citizens United decision and ran roughshod over legal precedents like Roe Vs.Wade to please their monied masters. For more, Google Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow.

Last year, Martis pooh-poohed his connection to the Energy and Environment Legal Institute in a Detroit Free Press article, saying of his fellowship there: “It came with no money, direction, responsibility, nothing. It’s an honorary title…I haven’t talked with anybody there in about five years.”

Ballot Initiatives Don’t Fund Themselves

Martis claims his ballot initiative is funded solely by local concerned citizens. Our Home, Our Voice will need to gather 446,198 signatures to get the ballot initiative before Michigan voters. Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University, told Planet Detroit that special interest groups usually fund ballot initiatives. The Promote the Vote ballot initiative in 2018 received 86% of its funding from the state and national offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. Only 2% came from small donors.

Dick Farnsworth is a member of Patriots of Montcalm, a group supporting landowners who want to put renewable energy projects on their properties in Michigan’s Montcalm County. “They said it’s going to cost them $7 million to $10 million to do this. They’re not getting that from…$10 or $20 contributions,” he says. He claims the Michigan Public Service Commission has the necessary expertise to help decide on the siting for large renewable energy projects just as they oversee pipelines and energy transmission infrastructure.

Farnsworth is hopeful that moving the venue for these disputes to state capital, township politics can become less acrimonious. He is concerned that disruptive local meetings will discourage good candidates from running for office. Patriots of Montcalm will be doing outreach to counter what he said was misinformation from the other camp. “We look at it as harvesting the sun and the wind,” he said. “It’s just another opportunity to use your land.”

The fear and loathing are real. Several people told Planet Detroit  they have experienced fear-based rhetoric on a visceral level at township meetings. Mike Buza, a Sierra Club member and renewable energy advocate who often speaks at public meetings, said he’s had people follow him to his car or block him from leaving a township meeting. “One guy told me God would make me pay for what I said,” Buza said. Such anti-social behavior is common at many local meetings.

Farnsworth argues that those who talk about local control are actually undermining the property rights of their neighbors and often don’t understand the financial pressures facing farmers. He owns a farm in west Michigan’s Montcalm County that has been in the family since 1880. He said a wind lease is necessary for his family to maintain the property as a farm.

“Opponents say they don’t want wind and solar projects because it would disturb the rural nature of their environment,” he told the House Energy Committee in testimony submitted in October. “The irony is if they stop these projects, property owners like us will be forced to make some hard choices between keeping it as a farm or selling it off for development.”

The Takeaway

Siting of renewable energy resources is a thorny thicket for government officials. It would be one thing if some energy companies were asking the state to take land for their projects by eminent domain, but they are not. Instead, these projects provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax payments to local governments, money needed to pay police and fire services, fund schools, build roads, and provide municipal services.

Justin Carpenter, the director of policy at the nonprofit Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, told Planet Detroit the legislation that moved siting decisions to the state level is essential for meeting state climate goals. In Michigan, energy generation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions. The state recently passed energy legislation calling for 80% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2035 and 100% by 2040.

“A lot of the decision making at the local level was entirely based on misinformation and disinformation,” Carpenter said. For instance, one complaint often heard at those meetings is that solar panels will leach dangerous chemicals into the land, a claim not supported by any credible research. He added that the siting legislation includes measures to protect residents. This includes requiring developers to provide $2,000 per megawatt in community benefits and giving municipalities as much as $75,000 each to represent their interests if a siting decision goes before the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Are national special interest groups actively promoting these “grassroots” campaigns to prevent new renewable energy installations? They love to hide behind a facade of “Aw shucks, it’s just us local folks tryin’ to save our communities from those fat cat city slickers comin’ in here and telling us what to do.” It’s a very effective strategy, even though the locals often don’t realize they are being manipulated by wealthy outsiders who are none too interested in revealing their true motives.  Being a CleanTechnica reader, you are by definition above average and free to draw your own conclusions.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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