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Proposals for large-scale green energy development could go to MPSC

Legislation would allow large wind, solar projects to bypass local approval

Photo via MetroCreative An example of a large scale solar power installation. Four bills have passed committee in the Michigan House that would require the Michigan Public Service Commission to oversee applications from developers of large scale solar and wind energy storage facilities, rather than local municipalities.

L’ANSE — A package of bills that could place siting authority over some larger renewable power installations in the hands of the state rather than local municipalities was moved forward by a state House committee this week.

House Bills 5150 through 5153 each advanced from the Energy, Communications, and Technology Committee on a party-line vote, winning approval from nine Democrats while seven Republicans voted against them. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, passed on the bills.

Developers of larger wind, solar or energy storage facilities would be able to apply through the Michigan Public Service Commission rather than through local municipalities. The three-person board is appointed by the governor, and cannot have more than two members of the same party.

Companies could still opt to seek approval at the local level, which would have fewer regulations and a faster process, MPSC Chair Dan Scripps said at last week’s hearing.

Taken together, bills 5150 and 5152 would create a certification process through the MPSC for solar and energy storage facilities of 50 megawatts or more, and wind facilities of 100 megawatts or more.

Each bill has a companion piece — 5151 and 5153, respectively — stating that zoning ordinances are subject to the new legislation. They only take effect if the larger bills are passed.

A provider would be required to hold a public meeting in every municipality affected by the proposed development. They would also have to offer in writing to meet with the chief elected official in each local unit to discuss the site plan.

The new regulations would have applied to the Summit Lake Wind Project, a proposed 130-megawatt wind farm in L’Anse Township near the Huron Mountains. ES announced in 2019 it was pulling out of the project, which had met with extensive public criticism.

Scotia Wind, a 40-megawatt project Circle Power had proposed in Adams and Stanton townships, would still have been required to go through local permitting.

A number of Michigan municipalities, including Houghton County and Adams Township, have passed resolutions opposing legislation that would remove local control.

Adams Township Planning Commission member Martha Dugdale said if power companies have the option of bypassing local boards, rural areas will bear the brunt of the projects. She called for a serious effort to place large-scale developments on brownfields, parking lots, roof tops and industrial areas.

“The state’s goal should not include disregarding the carefully crafted local ordinances that were put into place after due process at the township level,” she said at a September Houghton County board meeting.

In a statement released with two other House Republicans from the Upper Peninsula, Rep. Greg Markkanen said the proposed bills would reduce local control over large-scale projects.

“Local control is essential in all aspects of government, especially in projects that could change the entire landscape of a community,” he said. “The people who know best about our community were elected by our friends and neighbors to make those decisions. It’s vital that our voices don’t get drowned out by Lansing Democrats who want to make the U.P. into a parking lot full of windmills.”

Public comments heard at Wednesday’s hearing were uniformly against the bills.

Supporters of the bills have said it is a necessary step to help meet the state’s goals for renewable energy.

In an August address, Gov. Whitmer outlined goals for 100% green energy production, while not specifying a timeline.

Democratic legislative proposals include requiring utilities to generate 100% of electricity from carbon-free sources by 2035, and phasing out coal-fired plants five years before that.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said the bills preserve the opportunity for public engagement, while introducing investments into the state that can help communities grow.

“Our hope is that we enable people to make investments in our communities and invest in infrastructure in ways that are positioning us to be good stewards of our natural resources, to be responsible in our responses to our changing climate,” he said in an interview Saturday. “And also that we do so in a way that respects the fact that these projects will look different in different communities.”

Supporters also said it is consistent with other utilities regulated at a state level, as well as the way the projects are treated in neighboring states such as Illinois and Wisconsin.

Testifying at the House subcommittee hearing earlier this month, MPSC Chair Dan Scripps compared it to authority granted under previous legislative acts for state siting of high-voltage energy lines or carbon dioxide pipelines. The MPSC does not approve siting for power plants, he said in response to a later question.

He pointed to the recent experience of utility DTE, which explored 10 sites for possible wind farms in 2017.

Public feedback quickly scuttled six. Despite “extensive” community engagement, he said, the company abandoned three of the four remaining projects after continued pushback.

“Local opposition blocking projects that are a key part of maintaining reliability and forcing all of us to pay more for our electricity. That’s the status quo,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense, and we don’t follow this approach in any other aspect of Michigan’s energy infrastructure.”

State Rep. Jenn Hill, D-Marquette, a member of the committee, introduced two amendments that were added to the bill after Wednesday’s public hearing.

The first added specifics on the “public impact” the MPSC would consider in its decision. Hill had criticized the vagueness of the term during a committee hearing the previous week.

Examples in Hill’s resolution include expected tax revenue paid by the energy facility to local taxing districts, payments to owners of participating property, community benefits agreements, local job creation, and any contributions to meeting identified energy capacity, reliability or resource adequacy needs for Michigan.

Hill’s second amendment would require developers to pay into a fund that municipalities could use to challenge the projects through the MPSC. Up to $75,000 could go to a single municipality, with up to $150,000 per project in total.

“We have heard your concerns about how we participate in this process, and the developers are putting up the funds for you to do so,” Hill said, addressing numerous township representatives who had testified against the bill Wednesday.

Another amendment approved by the committee Wednesday would bar the state from taking land through eminent domain for renewable energy projects.

A member of Hill’s staff said Friday Hill had no additional comment because she is working with her colleagues to improve the bills, which are under active negotiation.

Applications would be required to describe the project’s public benefits and how it intends to mitigate any effect on the environmental and natural resources. For undeveloped sites, the company would also have to list other feasible alternatives the company explored and explain why they were not chosen.

Wind project setbacks would be measured based on maximum blade tip height: 2.1 times that distance to the nearest occupied community center, and 1.1 times that amount for participating residences, non-participating property lines, public road rights-of-way and center lines of easements for overhead communication and transmission lines.

Occupied community buildings and non-participating residences can also not experience more than 30 hours a year of shadow flicker, as projected by computer modeling. The maximum sound would be capped at 55 average hourly decibels.

Solar projects would be required to have a setback of 150 feet from the nearest occupied community structure, and 50 feet from public rights-of-way or the nearest shared property line. They must also be no more than 25 feet above ground at full tilt, and cannot generate more than 55 average hourly decibels as measured at the nearest dwelling outside the property.

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